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Jakarta Post
The Jakarta Post
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A necrology of Ben Anderson

  • James T Siegel

    The Jakarta Post

Ithaca, New York | Sat, December 19, 2015 | 04:05 pm

Benedict O'€™Gorman Anderson died in East Java on Dec. 13. At this moment no definitive cause of death has been announced. He has been cremated and his ashes strewn in the Java Sea.

Anderson first came to Indonesia in 1962 as a graduate student at Cornell University writing a thesis entitled The Pemuda Revolution, later published as Java in a Time of Revolution.

Nationalist leaders were wrapped up in negotiations. Youth groups forced Sukarno to make a unilateral declaration of independence.

Anderson mapped the youth whose violence and bravery made the march toward independence a revolution.

He moved the study of Indonesian politics from the story of diplomatic negotiations between states to the attempt to grasp forces that to this moment have been identified only to tell us that we are mistaken.

The word '€œrevolution'€ of the thesis meant a radical change in relations of power between classes.

Not much of that happened in Indonesia. '€œRevolution'€ was nonetheless an appropriate word because powerful forces were at work associated not with a social class but with those named pemuda (youth). '€œYouth'€ with its orientation to the uncertain shape of the future was almost a synonym for '€œrevolution'€.

One has to add of course '€œthe Indonesian revolution'€ in a sentence in which '€œIndonesia'€ could not be completely identified through geography or history.

The attempt to do so led to a book in which Indonesia is mentioned in an apology and almost nowhere else. An Indonesianist offered a book on another subject.

But in fact it was Anderson'€™s way of telling us what the Indonesian revolution meant. It was '€œimagined'€, revolutionaries (every '€œIndonesian'€) followed a path they thought was prescribed. With that a nation appeared.

And by a similar process with a different name it almost disappeared. Anderson with Ruth McVey wrote an analysis of the presumed coup that gave Maj. Gen. Soeharto the opportunity to direct one of the
twentieth century'€™s most important massacres.

In 1965 hundreds of thousands of Indonesians accused of being communists were killed, '€œorganized'€ in the confusion of mass graves.

Soeharto becoming President Soeharto in his only contribution to political studies spoke of '€œOTB'€, '€œorganization without form'€. Soeharto meant that communists were still at work but invisibly.

He referred to his last book, on anarchists, as '€œmy novel'€.

There is an '€œorganization'€, a relation of parts, but we have to guess at who the members are. Soeharto believed he guessed rightly and manufactured more ghosts.

The imagined community metamorphosed with terrible results. Anderson remains our most
reliable guide to an eventual history of this period.

He himself was forbidden access to Indonesia but, maintaining his studies of the country, remained its most distinguished scholar.

Anderson, a polyglot fluent in the major European languages as well as several Southeast Asian languages, in particular Indonesian, Javanese and Thai but others as well, multiplied languages because those he knew were always insufficient.

Using them and his unparalleled knowledge Anderson continued to find the particularities of history that made a difference. He has been stopped, but he went far enough for one to think that his achievements began with '€œIndonesia'€ whether that nation was mentioned or not.

With each of these efforts, Anderson engaged with power, showing its usually unintended historical precipitations.

He referred to his last book, on anarchists, as '€œmy novel'€. An appropriate form for a study of global connections between people who come into relation with each other through politics.

An obituary conventionally names the deceased'€™s '€œcontributions'€ as if they have been laid to rest, to be revived when necessary.

Careful readers of Anderson'€™s works will find themselves revived, living members of an organization without a form, joined in unimagined solidarity with others unknown to themselves.


The writer is retired professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Cornell University.