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Petirtaan and the Concept of a Nation: Remembering Benedict “Oom Ben” Anderson

Ben Anderson at the re-launching of Indonesia dalem Api dan Bara, credit: Edward Manik

January 6, 2017

This week we are featuring an article written by our MA student Dimas Romadhon from Indonesia. We hope that this article gets you excited for our Southeast Asian Studies Graduate Student Conference in March that is inspired by Benedict Anderson. Abstracts (up to 500 words) are due February 13.

Pertitaan is one of the ancient kingdoms relics in Indonesia, in addition to candi (temples) and istana (palace). Petirtaan is not just a place for the noble family to take a bath. It functions as a sacred place for kings and queens to clean their heart and soul from stains and sins, from lust behaviors. That is why petirtaan is very sacred in the history of ancient kingdoms in Java. It symbolizes that the king, a descendant of Gods, could not escape from committing sins and lustful behaviors. In “The King’s Witch” (2000), Goenawan Mohammad retells about a conspiracy designed by the King of Kahuripan, Airlangga, and should-be- ascetic priest, Empu Baradah, to end the life of Calon Arang. A conspiracy, even if it was done by a king and claimed as for good sake, is still a conspiracy: it is a stain. Maybe that is why, in the history of Kahuripan kingdom, Airlangga owned not only one but two petirtaan which still exist until today: Petirtaan Candi Belahan and Petirtaan Jolotundo.

Ben Anderson (also known as “Oom Ben” in Indonesia) certainly knew it, and he loved Petirtaan Candi Belahan and Petirtaan Jolotundo. Even a day before his death, he visited both petirtaan. He completely understood that no leader is really clean. He wrote it in “Petrus Dadi Ratu” (2000), which discovers cruelty committed by Soeharto and the regime that he built in Indonesia for 32 years. Anderson’s article is about those who were betrayed and were killed by Soeharto, just like how Mohamad writes about the conspiracy and slaughter committed by Airlangga. No leader is really clean.

Candi Belahan, from

Candi Belahan, from


Petirtaan Jolotundo, from

In his memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries, Oom Ben recounts his first days in Indonesia in 1961, when he was warm-welcomed as a doctoral student from Cornell University who was interested in Japan colonization in Indonesia. He spent three years in Indonesia even though his funding was actually planned only for one year and a half thanks to the Rupiah’s weak rate to the US Dollar. Years later, Oom Ben’s analysis in Cornell Paper which accused Soeharto as the director behind the 1965 tragedy, made the Smiling General furious. It led to Oom Ben’s expulsion in 1972 until 1998 after the downfall of Soeharto regime. Oom Ben was a lucky scientist. He was born as Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson in 1936 in Kunming, China, from Anglo-Irish father and English mother. His first words were Vietnamese, influenced by his Vietnamese nanny. The Sino-Japan War in 1941 then forced Anderson and his family to leave China for California until 1945, before moving to London. He studied at King’s College, Cambridge, and then continued his graduate degree at Cornell University. His childhood life and his ability to read a lot of non-English references contribute to the creation of his colorful and rich perspectives. Vicente Rafael, in “Regionalist, Area Studies, and the Accidents of Agency,” also argues Oom Ben is lucky enough since most of his research was inspired by a series of political accidents in Indonesia and Thailand during the 1960s. His perspectives are what make the birth of his masterpiece Imagined Communities in 1983m, in which he denies the formal concept of nationalism and considers the nation as an imagined community, discriminating yet limited. In his book, he also attacks the bourgeoisies as a ruling community. He also presents data about slavery in Portuguese history, and about English monarch dynasty that was never really led by Englishmen. These thoughts then influence many researchers in area studies, especially Southeast Asian studies. One of those researchers is Thongchai Winichakul. In his Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Winichakul employs Oom Ben’s thoughts as his foundation of analysis. Winichakul sees the process of establishing a nation as a process of identification between We-self and Others, or in Siam history, between Thai and Non-Thai. A nation is created from how the people classified which characteristics are of a national identity (positive identification) and which characteristics that are not of a national identity (negative identification). This perspective is in the same line with Anderson’s argument that a nation is an imagined community.

His concept of a nation makes him obsessed with a book entitled Indonesia dalem Api dan Bara by Tjamboek Berdoeri that he bought from a street merchant in Jakarta. The book narrates about the life of a Chinese-descent in Malang, East Java Province, during the years of Indonesian independence. The character in this book considered himself as a part of a nation named Indonesia, but unfortunately, indigenous Indonesians treated him and other Chinese-descents like foreigners. After taking decades of research and investigations, in 2004, Oom Ben relaunched the book after revealing that the book was a memoir of Kwee Thiam Tjing, a journalist during the Indonesian Independence War, behind the pseudonym Tjamboek Berdoeri.

Ben Anderson at the re-launching of Indonesia dalem Api dan Bara, credit: Edward Manik

Ben Anderson at the re-launching of Indonesia dalem Api dan Bara, credit: Edward Manik

Rather than naming him as a communist thinker, I prefer to mention Oom Ben as a “person at the intersection”. He was a man who couldmention more than one country as his nation: China as his birthplace, Ireland and England from his parents, the US where he worked, and Indonesia where he devoted his love to. I would not be surprised if Oom Ben did not recognize the extreme concepts of nationalism, like how J. F. Kennedy described a true nationalist should be. But, it does not mean that Oom Ben had no positive perspective about nationalism. For him, as he wrote in Indonesian Nationalism Today and in the Future (1999), the true nationalist will feel ashamed if his/her nation commits crimes to his fellow citizens.


Ben Anderson's last lecture at University of Indonesia, December 10, 2015. Courtesy: YouTube.

Ben Anderson’s last lecture at University of Indonesia, December 10, 2015. Courtesy: YouTube.

As a person at the intersection, or in Bahasa: orang di persimpangan, I presume Oom Ben always worried about his steps: he was an academician who actively criticized a country’s leader; he was an Indonesianist who worked under the US government’s funding and strategic investment for Indonesian and Southeast Asian Studies (he mentions it in his memoir). Maybe Oom Ben felt stained. He felt the dilemma felt by Empu Baradah when Airlangga asked him to join a cunning conspiracy. Maybe that is the reason why Oom Ben requested his ashes to be sprinkled on the sea around Java. That is his petirtaan.