Imagining Indonesia: A Requiem for Benedict Anderson

Two short weeks before we left for Indonesia, a man quietly passed away in his sleep in the mountain town of Batu, East Java. He was not Indonesian, but rather, an Irish citizen who had spent much of life away from his country of official residence—he was born in China, spent his early childhood in California, when to school in England, and received his doctorate from Cornell. Perhaps, then, as someone who knew so many different ways to belong to a nation, it is fitting that the man, Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, became one of the most influential analysts of the conception of nations and nationalism in the past forty years.

Anderson’s work was deeply rooted in Southeast Asia, with a special focus on Indonesia. His doctoral work in the late 1960s focused on Indonesia, and his most well-known book, Imagined Communities, spends a considerable amount of time examining the genesis of Indonesian nationalism during the later decades of Dutch colonial rule of the archipelago. Anderson saw in Indonesia a microcosm of the development of the idea of the nation throughout the world. Before the Dutch came, Indonesia really was a fiction. The kings of Java and Bali, the sultans of Aceh, the Toraja chiefs in Sulawesi, the Dayak elders in Kalimantan, and the Batak clans in Sumatra all had claims to various territories, but none actually imagined themselves as belonging to an organic, unitary community in any meaningful way. Even the great maritime empires of Indonesia’s past were hardly arrangements that we would understand today as anything approaching nation-states. Instead, they were ethnically dominated networks of trade, linking distance outposts of commerce and religion, but in a way that largely ignored interior populations. For the people of the interior, except for the occasional intrusion of traders upriver to retrieve coveted goods from the forest, contact was limited, if existent at all. And whether the trade ships bore the emblem of Sri Vijaya or Majapahit or the Dutch East Indian Company, it mattered little. Beyond the occasional demand for tribute, the old way of empire in the yet-unmade “Indonesia” meant little for the vast majority of people. It was merely a matter for traders, kings, and bureaucrats.

Anderson linked the creation of nations, which he called “imagined communities,” with the advancement of national languages. These languages, often taken up by local imperial middlemen who wished to assert their own indigenous sovereignty against foreign occupiers, were created and popularized out of a pre-existing cultural matrix, but were nonetheless much more productions of invention than are generally thought. Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, is a prime example. A mélange of trade Malay (which was spread across the archipelago by the mercantile empires of old), Javanese (the language of the locus of political power during the Dutch years), and a healthy portion of Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, English, and Dutch loanwords, it is an entirely invented language. No ancient texts are written in Indonesian, and prior to the twentieth century it had no native speakers whatsoever. Even today, despite its active promotion by the Indonesia state, it remains a second language for many. Wherever we have traveled, we have found other languages spoken alongside Bahasa Indonesia—Balinese, Batak, Acehnese, Javanese, Malay, Chinese. From casual exchanges to pop music, the specter of these older languages always stalked close behind.

In Anderson’s sense, then, Indonesia is imaginary. From space, there is no obvious reason why Indonesia’s borders exist as they do, most certainly when we consider the odd lines that strike across Borneo and Papua and Timor. There is no obvious reason why Java and Sumatra should be in the same nation, but not Sumatra and Malaya. The histories of the people that make up modern-day Indonesia are certainly intertwined, but so too are those of the peoples of Malaysia and the Philippines and Thailand and southern China and even Australia. Indonesia only exists in the sense that there are people willing to believe that it does.

This, of course, might seem trite and trivial, but Anderson did not think so, and nor should we. Just because something is imagined does not mean it does not have real power. The history of Indonesia’s turbulent seventy years of existence, from the brutal wars of independence against the Japanese and the Dutch to the still whispered-about atrocities perpetrated in the wake of the massive social changes of 1965 and 1997, can be counted in a cost of real human lives and livelihoods nonetheless. Indonesia might be an obvious case of fragmented communities trying to achieve an imagined national unity, as its national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika—“United in Diversity”—betrays. But so too are all nations, as Benedict Anderson reminded us. Indonesia’s motto is equally a gloss of the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum, which graces the Great Seal of the United States, an equally imaginary nation, whose legacy and heritage remains as contested as that of this diverse archipelago on the other side of the Pacific.

Matt Regan

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