In 1967, Sudisman, the general secretary of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), whose ranks had just been decimated in a series of massacres that left hundreds of thousands dead, was put on trial. Of the top five PKI leaders, Sudisman was the only one who appeared in court; the others were shot. Two foreigners were always present in the Jakarta courtroom: Benedict O’Gorman Anderson, a 30-year-old scholar of Indonesia, and Herbert Feith, a colleague of Anderson’s from Australia.
Amid the parade of Communist witnesses, only two of them spoke out in protest in the courtroom and refused to incriminate others. One was an old woman who subsequently went mad; the other, Anderson recalled many years later, “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.”
Sudisman, who received a death sentence, also maintained his composure. In 2001, Anderson told me that he “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, 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 an orange-colored, 28-page pamphlet titled “Analysis of Responsibility,” with an admiring introduction by the translator.
After Sudisman’s trial, Anderson’s ability to do research in Java would eventually be curtailed. The young scholar, entirely fluent in Indonesian, was being watched: A US embassy document from 1967 stated that Anderson was “regarded…as an outright Communist or at least a fellow traveler.” He also found himself under attack in the Indonesian press: The magazine Chas, which reportedly had ties to the country’s intelligence services, called him a “useful idiot” in a front-page article. In April 1972, Anderson was expelled from the country. It was the beginning of an exile that would endure for almost three decades.
With Indonesia closed to him, Anderson journeyed to Bangkok in 1974. “It was a wonderful time to be there,” he later said. A heady interlude between dictatorships allowed Thai radicalism to flower. The good times ended in 1976, when the military overthrew the civilian regime and publicly shot and hanged student radicals in downtown Bangkok.
Still, the period Anderson spent in Thailand was essential to his intellectual growth, as it forced him to think comparatively—which, at the time, was rare among area-studies scholars. “Being in Thailand,” he later said, “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, who died in Batu, Indonesia, in December at the age of 79, overcame that challenge, and the result was Imagined Communities (1983), a classic analysis of nationalism that has been translated into 29 languages.