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Volume 11, No. 7—October 2001  
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COVER STORY

A Return to Java
Thirty years after he was banned from Indonesia, Benedict Anderson goes back to the country where he made his name
by Scott Sherman

IN 1972 BENEDICT O'GORMAN ANDERSON, a Southeast Asia specialist at Cornell University, was banned from Indonesia, where he had done his dissertation fieldwork in the early 1960s. In 1999, he returned to Jakarta for the first time in twenty-seven years to deliver what the Times Literary Supplement called an "eye-popping" lecture to an auditorium overflowing with power brokers and literati.

Much had changed in the intervening years. General Suharto, Indonesia's ruler since 1965, tumbled from power in 1998, a casualty of the Asian financial crisis. East Timor, after a prolonged and bloody independence struggle, broke free of Indonesian rule under the auspices of the United Nations. Fresh bursts of violence were erupting in the rebellious regions of Aceh and Irian Jaya, prompting fears that the vast Indonesian archipelago could splinter. And the entire nation was experiencing a period of democratic ferment, exemplified by the relaunch of the independent newsmagazine Tempo, which was banned under Suharto's New Order regime and which had invited Anderson to speak at a celebration marking its reappearance.

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 amnesia—especially with regard to the massacres of 1965-1966, when the government brutally extirpated the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in what a Central Intelligence Agency report later declared "one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century."

"I can only shake my head in disbelief," Anderson said coolly from the platform, "at the way that the 'opposition' demands that Suharto and his family be called to account for stealing so much money—perhaps they think of it as 'our' money?—and largely turn a blind eye to crimes a thousand times worse: systematic, planned murder on a scale never before seen in the history of the archipelago.

"We can see that the entire 'opposition' today," Anderson continued, "is not, fundamentally, a real opposition to the Dry-Rot Order"—a reference to Suharto's New Order but also an elaborate wordplay in Indonesian—"and that the Indonesia they wish to rebuild will, consequently, still have a mountain of skeletons buried in its cellars."

Anderson's lecture was not merely an eloquent harangue. It was also an emotional plea for a unitary Indonesia. "The modern world," he proclaimed, "has shown us sufficient examples of nations that have broken up because too many of their citizens have had shriveled hearts and dwarfish minds—to say nothing of excessive lust for domination over their fellows." Invoking the names of distinguished patriots who fought for Indonesian independence in the twilight of Dutch colonial rule, Anderson concluded: "I believe in, and hope for, a real revival of the common project which was initiated almost a hundred years ago," a project that "demands self-sacrifice, not the sacrificing of others."

It was a stormy homecoming for a man accustomed to controversy. Television stations and newspapers clamored for interviews, and Tempo reprinted Anderson's remarks for its middle-class readership. Since the speech, Anderson's visibility in Indonesia has soared: He contributes pungent essays, with titles like "Suharto's Gulag," to the Indonesian press; his books, proscribed by the New Order, are appearing in fresh editions; and a new generation is excavating the work of a scholar whose aura always had much to do with his status as persona non grata.

In the United States, Anderson is best known for his classic 1983 book, Imagined Communities (Verso), an innovative and celebratory essay on nationalism. With Indonesia at a crossroads, beset by political uncertainty and insurgent separatism, his speech in Jakarta was a calculated attempt to put the ideas of Imagined Communities into concrete practice—to affirm the "grand idea" of Indonesia and to urge Indonesians to "to participate voluntarily, enthusiastically, equally, and without fear in the common project of Indonesian nationalism." But the project can only succeed, Anderson insisted, if its participants resist militarism and ethnic chauvinism and if the Indonesian government accepts some degree of regional autonomy and federalization. The time has come, in other words, for Indonesian politicians and intellectuals to reimagine their community, without burying its past.

For Anderson, the stakes are high. Indonesia is much more than an academic specialty: He says he often thinks in Indonesian rather than in English, and he speaks the language constantly in his home. He writes about the country with considerable intimacy. The 1965-1966 slaughter came as a stunning blow to him. He once wrote that it "felt like discovering that a loved one is a murderer." And it left him with a haunting emotional question: "How still to love a murderer?" It's a question that has animated Anderson's work, and his life, for thirty-five years.

IN NOVEMBER 1956, as a student at Cambridge University, Anderson noticed a cluster of dark-skinned students, Pakistani or Indian, demonstrating against Prime Minister Anthony Eden's decision to invade Suez. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a band of upper-class English students, singing "God Save the Queen," assaulted the crowd. "The scene seemed incomprehensible, and I feebly tried to get the educated louts to stop," Anderson has written. "My spectacles were smacked off my face, and so, by chance, I joined the column of the assaulted." Shortly thereafter he left Cambridge for Cornell to begin a forty-year career studying Indonesia.

The confrontation at Cambridge, his first direct encounter with nationalism, aroused his interest in Asia. But the connections were already there: His grand-father had been a cryptographer for the British imperial army in South Asia. Anderson's father, James, spent almost three decades crisscrossing China as an employee of the Chinese Maritime Customs, a Western-dominated consortium whose main purpose was tax collection. Benedict was born in Kunming in 1936, but Japanese encroachment, and the coming war, brought the family to California in 1942. In 1945, the family relocated to Ireland, where Benedict spent much of his youth. James Anderson, who died in 1946, was of mixed Anglo and Anglo-Irish origins; indeed, the O'Gorman side of the family had been active in Irish nationalist politics ever since the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798. "Because of all this," Anderson says, "though I was educated in England from the age of eleven, it was difficult to imagine myself English."

Anderson's detour into Indonesian studies was largely accidental. At loose ends after graduating from Cambridge, he received a letter from a high school classmate who was studying politics at Cornell. The department needed a teaching assistant—might Anderson be interested? Before arriving in Ithaca in 1958, Anderson learned that Cornell had America's largest and most distinguished Southeast Asian studies program. It was headed by George Kahin, whose 1952 book, Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia, had established him as the country's foremost authority on Indonesia. Hounded during the McCarthy years, Kahin was nonetheless one of the first scholars, in the early 1960s, to oppose the Vietnam War. From him, Anderson learned "the inseparability of politics and scholarship."

Another formative influence at Cornell was Claire Holt. Descended from a wealthy Jewish family in Latvia, she had been a dancer and dance journalist in Paris before arriving in Java in the 1930s. Holt had no academic credentials, but because she possessed encyclopedic knowledge of Indonesian language and culture, in the 1950s Kahin brought her to Cornell to teach. It was Holt who introduced Anderson to the contours and complexity of "traditional Javanese culture"—magic, bandit legends, gamelan music—that greatly influenced his early work. Notably, in his pathbreaking 1972 essay "The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture," Anderson compared the Western tendency to perceive power as embedded in social relationships with the Javanese tendency to locate power externally, as a force to be harnessed through means such as magic, sexual prowess, and masking.

Under the guidance of Holt and Kahin, Anderson went to Jakarta in 1961 to research his dissertation, which was eventually published as Java in a Time of Revolution (Cornell, 1972). The early 1960s marked the twilight of President Sukarno's "Guided Democracy"—which Anderson later described as "populist-authoritarian, conservative-radical"—and for an indefatigable graduate student, it was a blissful time to be in Indonesia. Foreigners were scarce; the political elite was remarkably accessible. The presidential palace regularly hosted shadow plays—elaborate puppet shows set to gamelan music—and President Sukarno himself was often there, surrounded by a plethora of diplomats, students, and onlookers. Anderson recalls: "One could stretch out on a flea-infested mat along with everyone else, get one's plate of cold rice and curry and a glass of warm tea, and watch the whole night through."

When Anderson wasn't studying Indonesian and Javanese, he was plundering the archives for documents on the Indonesian revolution of 1945-1949; wandering through the old royal palaces of Java, most of which were decrepit but still accessible; and taking motorcycle excursions through the small villages of the interior. He even took up the gendér, a two-handed Javanese instrument consisting of bronze plates suspended over bamboo tubes of different lengths, which he studied under the direction of one of Java's most distinguished musicians. (Anderson has been equally industrious with regard to languages: He would eventually learn to speak Indonesian, Javanese, Tagalog, and Thai, and to read Spanish, Dutch, German, Russian, and French.)

But storm clouds were gathering throughout the early 1960s. Runaway inflation and a burgeoning U.S. presence in Vietnam contributed to an increasingly volatile political atmosphere. At its center, Sukarno, the mercurial left-wing nationalist, was engaged in a delicate balancing act between the PKI—the third-largest communist party outside the socialist bloc, with three million members—and the powerful military. The PKI, with its parliamentary orientation, resembled the Italian Communist Party more than the Russian, but its growing strength, particularly in rural areas, made the military jittery. Anderson claims today that his feelings about the PKI at that time were mixed: He admired its incorruptibility, its nationalism, and its opposition to the Vietnam War. "Would it be so bad if the PKI came to power?" he mused in a letter to fellow Indonesianist Daniel Lev. But he also had his doubts: Why, he wondered, did PKI rallies feature anti-Western songs composed under the brutally repressive—and anticommunist—Japanese occupation regime of 19421945? In any case, darkness was approaching, and Anderson returned to Ithaca in 1964 with a strong sense that "the Indonesia I had known and loved was gone forever."

ANDERSON'S foreboding proved prescient. October 1, 1965, witnessed what appeared to be a coup d'état by disgruntled military officers in Jakarta and the surrounding provinces. Six government generals were murdered, their bodies tossed down a well. President Sukarno was briefly detained, then released. Government military forces led by Major General Suharto quickly regained control of the situation and blamed the coup attempt on the PKI. Sukarno was essentially relieved of his presidential duties; a broken man, he died in 1970.

A stream of propaganda—to the effect that the generals had had their eyes gouged out and their genitals mutilated by female PKI cadres—saturated the media. Two weeks later, what Anderson refers to as "the catastrophe" began: The military destroyed the PKI in a series of massacres that claimed somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million lives from October 1965 to January 1966. According to a declassified 1968 CIA study, Indonesia—1965: The Coup That Backfired, "In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s."

The Indonesian military insisted that the PKI was the sole dalang (puppet master) behind the coup, but Anderson and others in Ithaca were skeptical. So in January 1966, Anderson and two colleagues, Ruth McVey and Frederick Bunnell, produced their own account of the coup attempt. The team relied on a vast cache of provincial Indonesian newspapers owned by the Library of Congress but stored at Cornell, as well as classified Foreign Broadcast Information Service documents also stored at Cornell. The result of their research was a 162-page report that soon became internationally known as the Cornell Paper.

The Cornell Paper insisted that the coup attempt was not a communist power grab but an "internal army affair" spearheaded by colonels from the province of Central Java. The authors admitted that some low-level PKI members participated but insisted that they were duped into it by the military. "The PKI had been doing very well by the peaceful road," the paper argued. "To undertake violence would have involved pitting itself against a vastly superior military force and might have thrown the President into alliance with the army"—a consequence that would have been "fatal to communist hopes."

Initially the authors quietly distributed the Cornell Paper to only a handful of academics. Since the massacres were still happening, Anderson and his co-authors remained anonymous, lest their work jeopardize the safety of friends and colleagues in Indonesia. But Cornell's Kahin sent a copy to William Bundy, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, and arranged for McVey to talk to the syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft. The paper was soon transmitted, by an unknown source, to the military authorities in Jakarta, and Kraft devoted a column to the issue. Controversy erupted. In his 1969 book, The Communist Collapse in Indonesia, the conservative journalist Arnold Brackman furiously assaulted the Cornell Paper: "Why did the Paper's authors rush to absolve the PKI and Sukarno in terms of scholarship when their motivation may have been ideological?" he fumed.

Anderson's name would not be attached to the Cornell Paper until 1971, but when he returned to Indonesia in 1967, he was already the object of suspicion. A U.S. embassy document from that year said Anderson was "regarded as an outright Communist or at least a fellow-traveler." Still, Anderson was permitted to move freely within Indonesia, and in so doing, he discovered that certain leftists he knew in the early 1960s had vanished during the massacres. He was also allowed to attend the trial at which Sudisman, general secretary of the Indonesian Communist Party, was sentenced to death.

Of the PKI's top five leaders, Sudisman was the only one who was tried; the other four were summarily shot. Only two foreigners were continuously present in the courtroom: Anderson and Herbert Feith, an Australian colleague. The proceedings left a deep impression on both of them. Many PKI witnesses had broken under torture and were obsequious at the feet of the military judges. Amid the interminable parade of communist witnesses, only two, Anderson recalls, talked back in the courtroom and refused to incriminate their comrades. One was an old woman who subsequently went mad; the other, says Anderson, "was this little Chinese kid who looked nineteen or twenty. Very calmly, and with great dignity, he gave his testimony. I was so impressed by it." Anderson pauses at the memory. "When you see all these top communists groveling before the judge—what gave that kid the courage to do this?"

Sudisman, too, kept his composure when he addressed the court. Anderson recalls, "Sudisman was so dignified, so calm, and his speech was so great, that I felt a kind of moral obligation" to do something. "As Sudisman was leaving the courtroom for the last time," Anderson remembers, "he looked at me and Herb. He didn't say anything, but I had such a strong feeling that he was thinking: 'You have to help us. Probably you two are the only ones I can trust to make sure that what I said will survive.' It was like an appeal from a dying man." Anderson answered that appeal in 1975, when he translated Sudisman's speech into English from a smuggled copy of the court transcript. A radical printing collective in Australia published it as a twenty-eight-page orange pamphlet titled "Analysis of Responsibility," with an admiring introduction by Anderson.

And yet the deeper Anderson immersed himself in Indonesia's internal turmoil, the closer the end of his time there drew. After the Cornell Paper was officially published as "A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia" in 1971, Anderson still managed to visit Indonesia in early 1972. But once there, he found himself under attack in the Jakarta press. The weekly magazine Chas, which reportedly had connections to the intelligence services, published a front-page article under the headline CORNELL SCHOLARS: USEFUL IDIOTS. Shortly thereafter, Anderson was questioned by the police and ordered to remain in the capital. Meanwhile, Chas kept up the barrage with cover headlines like PRO-PKI POLITICAL GUERRILLAS EXPLOIT ACADEMIC WORK! THE CORNELL PAPER PROVED TO FALSIFY HISTORY!

In April 1972, Anderson was expelled from the country. On his return to Ithaca, he learned indirectly that he would be blacklisted from Indonesia until he publicly repudiated the Cornell Paper. It was the beginning of an exile that would endure for the better part of three decades.

HOW HAS the Cornell Paper stood the test of time? In the absence of documentary evidence from archives in Washington, London, and, most important, Jakarta, it is impossible to confirm or disprove its arguments. Still, in academic circles, the document has anchored a long-standing scholarly feud about the still-murky origins of the 1965 coup. And in Indonesia itself, the Cornell Paper never lost its popularity: The document circulated like samizdat among activists and intellectuals throughout the New Order period.

In the official army version, PKI agents manipulated dissident army officers into taking action against the military hierarchy. Some prominent scholars have reached a similar conclusion. In his 1978 book, The Army and Politics in Indonesia (Cornell), Harold Crouch, who teaches at the Australian National University, surveyed the various theories of the coup attempt, and concluded that PKI leaders did indeed spearhead an uprising in collaboration with left-leaning military officers. "I do agree with Harold Crouch, and so do most PKI people I have talked to," Herbert Feith of the University of Melbourne comments by e-mail. But other scholars remain skeptical. Anderson's old friend Daniel Lev, who is retired from the University of Washington, accepts "the possibility" of high-level PKI involvement but insists that without new archival material "the Cornell Paper, even now, is still the most basic analysis of what happened."

For his part, Anderson still defends the main thrust of the Cornell Paper—that an intramilitary dispute triggered the coup attempt—and he still gets emotional about the liquidation of the PKI. But after decades of reflection, he has arrived at a clear-eyed perspective on the missteps of Indonesia's communists. In the years leading up to 1965, he notes ruefully, the PKI was almost completely unarmed, but it embraced the rhetoric of Maoism. "That was a huge mistake," Anderson declares. "It created fear and anxiety about the Communist Party. It wasn't a guerrilla army. That's why they were massacred; they were all out in the open."

Some Indonesia scholars believe that the CIA had links to Suharto at the time of the coup attempt. But Anderson still places the burden for the bloodbath squarely on the shoulders of the military in general and Suharto in particular. "What was missing from the Cornell Paper," says Anderson, "was the sense that the whole thing was manipulated from the top by Suharto, which I think is probably what really happened." If General Suharto was, in fact, the puppet master, what was his intention? Anderson replies: "The destruction of the Communist Party and the removal of Sukarno."

UNABLE TO return to Indonesia, Anderson spent 1974 in Bangkok. "It was a wonderful time to be there," he recalls. A heady interlude between dictatorships allowed Thai radicalism to flower. But the good times ground to a halt in 1976, when the military overthrew the civilian regime and publicly shot and hanged student radicals in downtown Bangkok. Some young activists eventually found their way to Cornell, where, under Anderson's supervision, they sifted through the wreckage of Thai radicalism in a series of melancholy, innovative dissertations.

Throughout this period, Indonesia was never far from Anderson's mind. He became America's leading critic of the Suharto government in the 1970s, testifying frequently before Congress against U.S. military aid to what he called a "corrupt, dictatorial and aggressive military regime." In 1980, Anderson took direct aim at the U.S. foreign-policy elite, including the ambassador to Indonesia, Edward Masters: "In my judgment," Anderson said, "the Kissinger-Holbrooke-Oakley-Masters group has deliberately sacrificed the welfare of the East Timorese people, and even contributed directly to the catastrophe that has taken place on that island."

Not all of Anderson's colleagues shared his dark view of the Indonesian government. "Ben was never able to accept Suharto or his New Order in part because the new regime represented the triumph of the worst antiegalitarian forces in the society," says William Liddle, an Indonesia expert at Ohio State University who, like Anderson, writes regularly for the Indonesian-language press, albeit from a different political perspective. Liddle's early writings on the New Order were critical of Suharto from a liberal democratic perspective. "But starting in the late 1970s," he explains, "I increasingly saw the New Order's economic policies as laying the foundation for long-term democratization through an expanded middle class, a more educated population, and a lessened role for religion, especially fundamentalist religion, in political life. My views are rooted in the modernization theory of the 1950s in which I was trained—and confirmed, I believe, by the subsequent experiences of countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. Ben's roots are more Marxian."

Anderson's long absence from Indonesia left him open to the charge that he had fallen out of touch with the country's politics. Nonetheless, observes Feith, his long-standing intimacy with the language and culture rendered him a force to be reckoned with. "Anderson is certainly a central figure among Indonesianists," Feith remarks, "outshining everyone else at least in his generation, with the possible exceptions of Clifford Geertz and Ruth McVey."

FREEVILLE, New York, sits eight miles east of Ithaca. Anderson lives in a spacious old farmhouse surrounded by rolling hills, grazing cattle, and a barn topped by a Javanese-style weather vane. A young Indonesian friend, along with his wife and two small children, occupies a cottage on the property; Anderson dines with them almost every night, and they look after the place when he's away. In nice weather, Anderson likes to shuffle around his garden, shears in hand. He cultivates the flowers he knew in Ireland as a boy: yellow irises, fuchsias, poppies, mock oranges, lupines. Directly across the street are another forty acres he also owns: Some years ago, the old man who lived there sold it to him at a cut rate, with the request that the land be shielded from commercial encroachment.

On a breezy summer morning, Anderson's kitchen overflows with unruly stacks of books, journals, Asian newspapers, and doctoral theses. A portrait of the youthful Sukarno adorns one wall, a doleful relic in light of his ultimate fate. "Indonesia was really like another home for me," Anderson says. "Being kicked out was very painful." In the years after his banishment, he frequently discussed his work with his brother Perry, a distinguished historian and the author of the sweeping survey Lineages of the Absolutist State, among other books. Perry urged him to adopt a comparative perspective beyond Indonesia, and his stay in Thailand allowed him to do that. "Being in Thailand forced me to think all the time about if I had to write about Thailand and Indonesia in one space, how would I do it?" Anderson says. In that sense, his banishment from Indonesia was not entirely without benefit. "Probably I wouldn't have done Imagined Communities if Suharto hadn't given me this tremendous helping hand," he says with a sly grin.

The roots of Imagined Communities lie in what Anderson, in the late 1970s, saw as "a fundamental transformation in the history of Marxism and Marxist movements": the wars between Vietnam, Cambodia, and China in 1978-1979. Far from presenting a unified front against Western imperialism and capitalism, those regimes—whose "independence and revolutionary credentials are undeniable," Anderson noted—were engaged in undisguised fratricide. And so Anderson undertook a full-scale study of nationalism, a force whose power and complexity were not explained by the Marxist theory in which he'd been schooled. As Anderson notes, even one of nationalism's strongest scholarly proponents, the British Marxist Tom Nairn, writes that "'Nationalism' is the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as 'neurosis' in the individual...with...a similar built-in capacity for descent into dementia."

For Anderson, nationalism was neither a pathology nor a fixed, immutable force. Rather, he wrote, "it is an imagined political community...because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." For centuries, the world was organized into empires governed by supposed divine right. Within them, liturgical languages, spoken only by the elite, were the medium of culture and of communion with the sacred. Nationalism emerged as speakers of vernacular languages came to reject this organization of society, discovering instead their horizontal ties with one another and conceiving of themselves as citizens rather than as subjects. Nothing was so crucial to this transformation as the rise of what Anderson calls print capitalism: the publishing industry, which produced books, newspapers, and other media in vernacular tongues. Through these media, readers could imagine that they belonged to a shared community.

Such observations flowed naturally from Anderson's work on Indonesia's independence struggle of the 1940s: He saw how a skilled nationalist intelligentsia, based in Jakarta, had summoned not only a nation called Indonesia but also a new language, Indonesian, which became the language of resistance to Dutch colonial rule. Indeed, anticolonialism provided a crucial context for Anderson. Rejecting the view that nationalism first emerged in western Europe, he argued that it originated in early-nineteenth-century Latin America and was then adopted by the European nation-states.

One of the most striking aspects of Imagined Communities is Anderson's upbeat view of nationalism. "It is useful to remind ourselves," he wrote, "that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love." He rejected the identification of nationalism with racism, arguing that "from the start the nation was conceived in language, not in blood," and that its boundaries are potentially plastic: "Nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies," he wrote, whereas racism "dreams of eternal contaminations." In a recent interview in the Kyoto Journal, Anderson argues that "in the U.S., if people didn't believe in America, they'd be shooting each other out of pickup trucks in five minutes flat. [Nationalism is] a kind of glue that makes people, on the whole, obey the law and respect each other, in very large communities. We're talking about hundreds of millions of people. It's hard to think of anything else on the horizon that can enforce that kind of everyday decent behavior."

Of course, in the name of the nation, people also exclude, persecute, and even kill those considered outsiders to the national community. But to Anderson, such virulence is best seen as a perversion of a basically positive force. Nationalism, he remarks, "can be exploited and abused by people who have other things mainly on their minds, like imperialism, monopolies, police states, racism, and so on." Still, in his recent collection, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (Verso), Anderson concedes: "My long attachment to, and interest in, anticolonial nationalism had occluded from my vision its menacing potentialities once it got married to the state."

Translated into twenty-one languages and bearing a title that has become common coin across academic disciplines, Imagined Communities is cited in virtually every contemporary work on nationalism. For the foremost scholars in that field, Anderson's is a work to be revered and contested—sometimes simultaneously. Anthony D. Smith, a professor of ethnicity and nationalism at the London School of Economics, cautions that Anderson draws too sharp a distinction between religious and national communities; many modern nationalisms, Smith points out, are religiously based. But it is Liah Greenfeld of Boston University who, in a forthcoming essay for Critical Review, takes sharpest aim at Imagined Communities. Anderson, she writes, "did not ask why suddenly large-scale communities were imagined as nations—rather than as classes or churches, for instance, which was more in line with earlier imaginations." Like other critics, Greenfeld questions Anderson's assertion that Latin America was the birthplace of nationalism, pointing to "the substantial recent historical scholarship discussing its earlier presence...in...Britain and France." She concludes, "One can go on and on listing the instances in which 'the spectre of comparisons' fails to haunt Anderson: the amount of available empirical counterevidence—to his general argument as well as specific statements—is staggering."

Nonetheless, with Imagined Communities, Anderson had laid the cornerstone for a new discipline. And as Feith observes, with more than a little admiration, "What is distinctive about Anderson's scholarship is not judiciousness; it is adventurousness and originality."

SUHARTO finally fell from power in May 1998. At last, Anderson could return to Indonesia. But when he did so, it was without fanfare, in part because he thought he might be turned away.

That had happened before. In 1981, Anderson received a visa from the Indonesian embassy in Washington. But when he arrived at the airport in Jakarta, he was detained and quickly expelled. It was, he believes, a malicious trick by the Suharto regime, because the intelligence officials laughed at him as they put him back on the plane. "When the plane took off for Bangkok," Anderson recalls, "I suddenly felt this agonizing pain all over my body. It was so bad that for most of the flight I had to lie on the floor of the cabin, to the astonishment of the passengers and stewardesses. I knew that nothing was really wrong with me; this was the way my disappointment and anger vented itself on my body. That was a lesson to me."

So, in December 1998, when he returned to Indonesia for the first time in twenty-six years, he avoided Jakarta entirely and spent ten quiet days in the provinces with old friends. "I wanted to make sure I was on solid emotional ground," he explains. He was, and a few weeks later he accepted the invitation to speak at the Tempo celebrations in the capital.

Anderson's speech was a call not only to unearth the skeletons of 1965-1966 but to preserve a nation that, comprising seventeen thousand islands, forms one of the world's largest "imagined communities." In a veiled reference to Indonesia's dominant ethnic group, the Javanese, Anderson cautioned that one should beware of "those who talk a lot about 'our splendid ancestors'"; after all, nationalism is properly a "common project for the present and the future." He thundered, "I see too many Indonesians still inclined to think of Indonesia as 'an inheritance,' not as a challenge nor as a common project." The breakaway efforts in Aceh and Irian Jaya, he reminded the audience, have little to do with ancient hatreds and much to do with neocolonialism, corruption, and brutality emanating from Jakarta. The proper response to separatist movements, therefore, is genuine and full autonomy within a federal structure, along the lines of Brazil or India—something the Indonesian military has long resisted.

"I am sure there will be people in Jakarta who will shout, knee-jerk fashion, that a federal Indonesia was/is a Dutch colonial project—despite the fact that the Dutch have had no significant role in Indonesia for close to half a century," he stated. "Others will say federalism is a foreign-inspired scheme to dismember the unitary republic. Who are the foreigners who would have any interest in this dismemberment in the present post-cold war world? I can think of none." He continued: "I have no doubt that if these changes occur quickly and genuinely, separatist movements will lose their steam...and the Acehnese and Irianese will once again be invited seriously back into the common project and the deep horizontal comradeship from which they should never have been excluded."

The speech ended with a rumination on the notion of shame—without which, Anderson argued, the "common project" will be severely diminished: "I think that no one can be a true nationalist who is incapable of feeling ashamed if her state or government commits crimes, including those against her fellow citizens." He used his adopted country as an example. "During the Vietnam war," said Anderson, "a good part of the popular opposition came from just this good sense of shame among the American citizenry that 'their government' was responsible for the violent deaths of three million people in Indochina. So they went to work in protest, not merely as advocates of universal human rights, but as Americans who loved the common American project. This kind of political shame is very good and always needed." He concluded: "If this sense of shame can develop healthily in Indonesia, Indonesians will have the courage to face the horrors of the Dry-Rot era, not as 'someone else's doing,' but as a common burden."

The speech was an ambitious effort to bury the legacy of General Suharto (whose party, Golkar, is still a dominant political force) and to reaffirm the ideals of the doomed president Sukarno: internationalism, nationalism, democracy, and social welfare. (Anderson is ambivalent about Sukarno's daughter, Megawati, who recently took over the presidency after a protracted constitutional struggle, but he has a wait-and-see attitude: "I'm not optimistic, but I don't think there's any point in saying, too loudly or too often, that she's bound to be hopeless.")

Anderson's remarks elicited a wide range of commentary. Indonesia's foremost novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer—who was imprisoned for fourteen years during the New Order and is now a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature—expressed pleasure with the speech. But others were less enthusiastic. "It was full of Andersonian originality and disturbing challenges to the Indonesians in the audience, most of whom had prospered during the New Order," says Harold Crouch, who was present at the speech. "But I felt that some of his comments were a bit gratuitous, with a touch of self-righteousness. It is a lot easier for foreigners living abroad to take the moral high ground while his audience had to make a living for themselves and their families during the thirty-odd years of the New Order." Says Crouch: "Not everyone is willing to be a martyr."

ANDERSON just retired from Cornell, but his schedule remains frenetic. A collection he edited, Violence and the State in Suharto's Indonesia (Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications), has just appeared, and his calendar is packed with speaking engagements and writing deadlines. These days, however, he spends much of his time in Thailand, which he uses as a springboard for periodic visits to Indonesia. He's not in perfect health, and he relishes the tranquillity of Bangkok, where he owns an apartment in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, one filled with "small-businesspeople, schoolteachers, mistresses of policemen, this sort of thing." His high visibility in Indonesia makes it difficult for him to be productive there. "Indonesia is emotionally very stressful, even now, for me," he explains. "I hate to see how miserable everything is. I can't imagine how I could possibly get any peace or quiet there. The bliss of Thailand is that I'm largely invisible."

On his trips to Indonesia, he still endeavors to unravel the mysteries of 1965-1966. Lately he's been interviewing ex-prisoners who served in the Indonesian air force, whose role in the coup attempt has always been contested. He has also been conducting interviews with PKI veterans, most of whom served long prison sentences and are now old men. They are a suspicious bunch, leery of foreigners, but they have heard of Anderson, and they respect him and therefore submit to his questions. "I'm interested in their life histories," Anderson explains. "I ask them: What do you think it meant to be a communist? What regrets do you have? How do you look back on all this? It's a kind of history of the left. I'm not going to write that history, but at least the material will be on the record."

His Indonesia is full of ghosts. In 1999, he attended a meeting of an organization called Pakorba, which stands for "Association of Victims of the New Order." The gathering was held in central Jakarta, in a nondescript building owned by the Ministry of Manpower. Anderson recalls: "It was an incredibly overwhelming experience. It was packed with elderly men and women. Everyone turned to look: Who is this white guy? I just took my seat. Clearly some people in the audience recognized me; a buzz went around the room." People started to come up to him. "'Are you Ben Anderson?' Finally I was pushed onto the stage to say a few words." Many others spoke as well. "It was very emotional, because these people got up and, as if they were in a Quaker meeting, talked about their lives and experiences. Toward the end, something absolutely astounding happened."

He was approached by a handsome, dignified Chinese man, who looked to be about fifty and who said: "I want to thank you for what you wrote about me." Anderson had no idea who he was. "You wrote about me after the Sudisman trial," the man answered. Before him, Anderson suddenly realized, was the Chinese kid who talked back to the judge in 1967. Anderson was dumbfounded: "You were..." "Yeah, that's me," the man replied.

They spent a day together, and Anderson listened to the man's story. He explains, "Many of the communists, when they were trying to escape the sweeps on them, fled into the Chinese ghettos, partly because the Chinese are much more closemouthed than the Indonesians are, partly because these ghettos are accustomed to a certain level of clandestinity. And this kid, who was a radical kid, was somehow recruited by Sudisman to be his personal courier in terms of contacting other people who were hiding underground. Sudisman was the last surviving top communist who hadn't been executed or murdered by the regime."

In the period leading up to the trial, the man explained to Anderson, he was tortured in prison. Before his testimony, he was instructed by his interrogators to follow their directives in the courtroom, or else pay a high price afterward. But he defied them and spoke his mind before the judge.

"The strange thing," Anderson says, "is that when he came out of the courtroom, two of the guards clapped him on the shoulder. A strange part of the culture of these guys is that when they see courage, even if you're an enemy, they respect it. After that he wasn't tortured anymore, though he spent years and years in prison."

Remembering their encounter at the Pakorba meeting, Anderson pauses. "It was like somebody came out of a grave," he recalls with astonishment. "I never thought this guy was alive." Anderson is extremely reserved, but he confesses in a soft voice, almost a whisper: "We looked at each other and just jumped into each other's arms. I just felt like crying."

Scott Sherman is a contributing writer to LF. His chronicle of Mexico's student strike, "Left Out," appeared in the July/August 2000 issue.




 
 
 

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