Monday, February 1, 2016


Benedict Anderson, Asian scholar extraordinaire

(first published in the Bangkok Post, December 15, 2015)


by Philip J Cunningham

When I studied with Benedict Anderson at Cornell University in the mid-1970’s, he seemed the quintessential absent-minded professor; at once erudite and bookish, idealistic and dreamy-eyed. The fact that he had just been kicked out of Indonesia only added to his aura. Giving lectures about coups and counter-coups and revolutionary martyrs, he’d pace the front of the classroom in clunky boots and mismatched outfits, utterly captivating class attention with his soft but mellifluous Irish-accented voice.

Ajarn Ben, as his is affectionately known here, was one of Cornell’s most accomplished professors, and he was too self-effacing to play the role of academic rock star. Still, I think he had a good deal in common with John Lennon. He was a dreamer with prodigious powers of imagination. Like Lennon, he was at once outrageous and shy, artistic and political. Both were gadflies and contrarians, successful by conventional social standards, yet quick to attack the establishment and advocate for poor and dispossessed.

While Lennon dreamed of a world with no countries in “Imagine,” however, Ajarn Ben couldn’t imagine a world without countries. He was deeply fascinated by nationalism, despite it being corrosive of his own utopian beliefs. On the positive side, nationalism could transcend race, and hold a disparate nation together, as he documents in his magisterial book: “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism.”

Ajarn Ben was openly leftist in his political views, but consistently curious about the way other people thought and deeply empathetic with underdogs regardless of ideology.

It came as no surprise that he should be pleased when the progressive Dr. Puey Ungphakorn, former rector of Thammasat University, came to Ithaca after a narrow escape from Thailand in the aftermath of the October 6, 1976 military crackdown.

What was more telling about Ajarn Ben’s bandwidth as a scholar, however, was his equally gracious reception of a Thai government spokesman around the same time. He later told me he felt sorry for the tongue-tied spokesman, for it was a thankless job to defend the indefensible.

In a similar vein, Ajarn Ben would rail against the evils of the US government but would extend courteous welcome to spies and intelligence analysts. Even in heyday of  “CIA off-campus!” he was willing to share his insights with all takers. At a Southeast Asia Program dinner party, he introduced me to a visitor, saying, “I’d like you to meet my friend, she works for the CIA. I’m not joking.”

It is also telling that at a time when Cornell University offered courses in “Peace Studies” taught by Pentagon-inspired number-crunchers and nuclear war strategists, the steadfastly anti-imperialist Ajarn Ben was alone in offering a course in “Military Dictatorships.” When I asked him why he would want to dwell on something so negative, he answered, “Most countries in the world are run by the military, so if you want to understand the real world you have to understand that.”    

To the extent that the utopian and socialist leanings of his youth did not comport with the reality of a world where nationalism trumped ideology, and where his beloved Indonesia tore itself apart at the seams, he was intellectually courageous enough to challenge his own received knowledge.

Even as “Imagined Communities” became one of the most-referenced books in political science, Ajarn Ben wearied of academia, suggesting that “real genius resides elsewhere.” If the repetitive cycles of politics and academic fashion bored him, he never lost his enthusiasm for art. He tackled the Thai language at age forty and co-authored a book on Thai short stories with his Thai instructor, Ruchira Mendiones. Not one to rest on his laurels, he then tackled Spanish in order to read Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” in the original.

A good-humored gentleman and an iconoclastic scholar, Ajarn Ben was a maverick and a searcher for truth in all kinds of wrapping, shapes and sizes. As his chosen field of political science drifted into an increasingly quantitative, theoretical direction, he pivoted to language and culture, looking for nuggets of truth in small places. He saw the up-turned bowl of a single Buddhist monk refusing alms from the military in Burma as a radical rebuke of violence. He was endlessly fascinated with brilliant, lonely minds too far ahead of their time for their own good, be it Thailand’s Jit Phumisak, or the Philippine’s Jose Rizal. Both men were martyrs, targeted for their ideas.

In more recent years he became an avid film watcher. He invited me to a screening of Pridi Banonyong’s “King of the White Elephant” in Bangkok, a full thirty years after inspiring me to write a research paper about Thai statesman Pridi.  Back in Ithaca, he extolled the quirky, quiet contemporary films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Films can capture a child’s wide-eyed wonder at neglected aspects of the everyday world, a wide-eyed wonder I think he shared.

It gave me great pleasure to reconnect with my favorite professor over the years, sometimes in Bangkok, sometimes in Ithaca. When I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University, I was especially proud when he came to speak to my class. When I returned to Cornell as a visiting fellow, many years later, he invited me to his home in the appropriately-named rural hamlet of Freeville. We socialized as colleagues, but I always felt a mere student in his presence.

With the rise of divisive color-coded politics in Thailand, I was not always in agreement with my old professor, and I think for this reason we tended to speak more about China when we met. China vexed him to no end, but Ajarn Ben’s humor was the saving grace of many a conversation.

On October 27, 2015, Ajarn Ben gave what turned out to be his valedictory remarks at Cornell University after half a century of enriching the university community. During a lengthy introduction to the Filipina novelist Gina Apostol, he explored the relationship between art and truth, citing “Act of Killing” by Joshua Oppenheimer as an exemplary documentary examination of the brutal political violence in 1965 Indonesia.

The topic was close to Ajarn Ben’s heart—his own writing on the topic earned him persona non grata status in Indonesia until the end of the Suharto era. I think the tragicomedy of the deeply atmospheric, sometimes whimsical film, cut close to the professor’s oft-expressed appreciation for humor and irony in a world full of tears.

Ajarn Ben died in Indonesia, the country that banished him for 26 years. He was visiting Java on a journey that was eventually to take him to his winter home in Taling Chan, Bangkok. Born in China, raised in Ireland, educated in England and tenured in America, Benedict Anderson gently bowed out from the world in Indonesia, the very place that sparked his passion for Southeast Asian studies.