For a scholar of nationalism, it is surprisingly difficult to say
what nation Benedict Anderson belonged to.
Anderson was a peripatetic child of the British Empire. Born in
1936 in Kunming, China, where his Anglo-Irish father worked for
Chinese Maritime Customs, an imperial consortium that collected
taxes, the Andersons had to flee to California in 1941 when the
Japanese Empire began to expand into the country.
The family returned to Ireland in 1945, but occupied an ambiguous
position in their ancestral land. One strand of the family had been
Irish nationalists of long-standing, but as Anglo-Irish they existed
as a privileged minority, enjoying prestige but often excluded from
the nations core Catholic identity.
If the Andersons werent quite Irish, they werent completely
The familys experience in China gave them appreciation for
the underside of Empire.
As Perry Anderson, Benedicts younger brother and himself a
distinguished historian, once noted, their fathers experience
fighting corruption in the colonial management of China left a lasting
mark on the children.
In 1956, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Benedict Anderson was
radicalized by the protests over the Suez crisis, where he found
himself taking sides with anti-imperialist studentsmany of
them born, like him, in the formerly colonized worldagainst
British nationalists who supported the Anglo-French attempt to seize
the Suez Canal.
Out of his Cambridge experience, Anderson started on the path to
becoming a Marxist and an anti-colonialist scholar.
After Cambridge, Anderson attended Cornell for graduate school
and immersed himself in the study of Indonesia.
While Anderson spent much of his life in the United States, it wasnt
quite accurate to say that he became an American.
In truth, if Anderson had a homeland, it was Indonesia, which he
threw his whole heart and mind into not just studying, but also
Andersons linguistic fluency was almost superhuman. Perry
Anderson could read all the major European languages but once ruefully
declared his big brother was the true polyglot of the family: Benedict
could read Dutch, German, Spanish, Russian, and French and was fully
conversant in Indonesian, Javanese, Tagalog, and Thai; he claimed
he often thought in Indonesian.
(The ability to acquire languages ran in the familyMelanie
Anderson, an anthropologist and the younger sister of Perry and
Benedict, is fluent in Albanian, Greek, Serbo-Croatian).
An Indonesian friend of mine once marveled that Benedict Anderson
was so at ease in Javanese that he could tell jokes in the language.
The friend also favorably compared Anderson with another great expert
on Indonesia, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.
I always profit from reading Geertz but he simply deepens
my understanding of Indonesia, my friend said.
Anderson makes me see things about Indonesia that I never
noticed. He knows Indonesia as well as any Indonesian.
Between 1965 and 1966, Indonesia was engulfed in counter-revolutionary
violence that led to the American-supported anti-Communist dictator
Suharto taking power in 1967.
Between 600,000 and one million Indonesians, most of them supporters
of the nations largest communist party, were killed by the
The Central Intelligence Agency, which actively participated in
helping the Indonesian military choose targets, called it in a 1968
declassified study one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth
The violence of Suhartos coup was a key turning point in
It felt like discovering that a loved one is a murderer,
he wrote. He threw himself into the cause of chronicling the true
history of the coup and to countering the propaganda of the Suharto
While at Cornell in 1966, Anderson and his colleagues anonymously
authored The Cornell Paper, a report which became a
key document in debunking the official account of the coup, and
which was circulated widely in Indonesian dissident circles.
Anderson was also one of the only two foreign witnesses at the 1971
show trial of Sudisman, the general secretary of the Indonesian
communist party, who was sentenced to death.
Anderson would later translate and publish Sudismans testimony,
another key text in Indonesian history.
In 1972, Anderson was expelled from Indonesia, becoming an exile
from the nation he made his own.
He would return to Indonesia only in 1998, after the overthrow of
the Suharto regime. After a brief private visit to friends, Anderson
had an emotionally charged public event sponsored by the leading
Indonesian paper Tempo.
In a brilliant article in the magazine Lingua Franca, the journalist
Scott Sherman described Andersons return to Indonesia:
At a luxury hotel in downtown Jakarta, the sixty-two-year-old Anderson,
wearing a light shirt and slacks to combat the stifling heat, faced
a tense, expectant audience of three hundred generals, senior journalists,
elderly professors, former students, and curiosity seekers.
In fluent Indonesian, he lashed the political opposition for its
timidity and historical amnesiaespecially with regard to the
massacres of 1965-1966.
During his return to Indonesia, Anderson was reunited with a young
Chinese communist who had been on trial with Sudisman.
Anderson had thought this young man had been killed with Sudisman.
His miraculous survival was one sign that the Suharto regime hadnt
Andersons most famous work, Imagined Communities, emerged
from the the crucible of Indonesian history.
How do diverse nations like Indonesia, made up of many languages
and ethnicities, hold together?
Why do they sometimes fall apart?
What keeps people in large nations from killing each other and why
does national cohesion sometime fail?
These werent abstract questions for Anderson, but were instead
born out of lived immersion in Indonesian history.
While Imagined Communities is Andersons best-known work,
everything he wrote is worth readingthere are few more thoughtful
studies of transnational terrorism than his Under Three Flags: Anarchism
and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (2005).
As well-versed in novels and poetry as he was in scholarship, Anderson
was an eloquent advocate for global culture, calling attention to
the literatures of Indonesia and the Philippines.
A world traveler, it is fitting that Benedict Anderson died in Indonesia,
a country he could truly call home.
The Southeast Asian Times, 3 January 2016
First published in the New Republic December 13, 2015