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Ben Anderson Eulogy Surabaya, Indonesia, December 19, 2015 (by Thak Chaloemtiarana)

My name is Thak Chaloemtiarana, and I am here to speak on behalf of a grateful Cornell University and its saddened Southeast Asia Program.

The passing of Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies Emeritus is an irreparable loss to Cornell University and its Southeast Asia Program.  As one of the world’s leading institution of higher learning Cornell University’s prestige is built upon the reputation of its faculty.  Cornell prides itself of having outstanding faculty members exemplified by Nobel Laureates, members of prestigious societies and winners of national and international awards.

  Among those chosen to represent the best of Cornell on its public website is Professor Benedict “Ben” Anderson whose work is among the most cited in scholarly journals and books.  Ben Anderson is the best Cornell social scientist known internationally for his theoretical contributions to the study of nationalism, the politics and the culture of Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. A true comparativist, he was proficient in Bahasa Indonesia, Javanese, Thai, Pilipino, Spanish (which he taught himself so he could read Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in the original), Dutch, French, and many other languages.

All of us here are familiar with Ben Anderson’s work as a scholar so my purpose today is not to talk about his scholarly contributions to our collective field of study.  I am here to talk about Ben Anderson our teacher, our mentor, our colleague, and our friend.

News of his passing spread far and wide soon after his death.  Social  and the news media informed Ben’s students, colleagues, and friends of the sad news.  Many of them contacted me asking if they could add personal testimonies at the funeral. To this end, I would like to share some of their tributes with you.

Although Ben had influenced the works of innumerable students, colleagues, and those who sought out his counsel, there is no established Andersonian School of study   Instead, what is characteristic of Ben’s influence lies in the kinds of humanistic questions that he pose.  His fertile and curious mind allowed him to ask important, sharp, penetrating, and iconoclastic questions whose answers always made whatever was under scrutiny much clearer and less mundane. 

A prime example are the succinct yet earth-shattering questions he raised in his seminal article on “the Study of the Thai State: the State of Thai Studies” was so shocking to the established paradigm that it changed the field dramatically.  Many of the questions he raised forty years ago are still relevant waiting for future graduate students and scholars to explore and to answer.  In fact he was pleased that his collection of writings on Thailand was recently published by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications and also translated and published in Thai by Aan Publications. Craig Reynolds of the Australian National University writes: “A very imposing and generous intellect has departed the universe.  One the world is unlikely to see again.  I never took a course from him, but he was my teacher from whom I learned much, and I count myself fortunate for the occasional and fleeting encounters I had with him.  It was always stimulating and fun, and sometimes puzzling.”

This sentiment is echoed by Thongchai Winichakul, Craig’s PhD student, Professor at the University of Wisconsin and former President of the Association of Asian Studies--“Ajarn Ben would ask me questions that remain in my head and they would give me headaches for years!”

Tamara Loos, Professor of History at Cornell University writes: “As a teacher, Ben goaded us to learn, to defy him by daring to answer his incisive questions, which he delivered with Socratic precision.  It was so intimidating and equally glorious if you could answer.”

The day Ben died, Robert Taylor, the leading scholar of Burmese politics, wrote to me “I imagine you are as sad today as I am.  I guess we were Ben’s first two PhD students.  He always gave me lots of space to make my mistakes before suggesting a better way.  I never respected anyone more.  It was a privilege to have been his student.” 

Ben was our PhD committee chair from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.  We shared nearby offices at 102 West Avenue, a condemned former fraternity house.  Ben would be in his office most days from morning to midnight prompting us to follow his example.  He would also hold discussions on the stamp-sized lawn in front of the building on Saturday to talk about events in Southeast Asia.

Another classmate, Barbara Harvey who was DCM of the US Embassy in Jakarta asked me to add her testimony “Ben Anderson was not only a brilliant man, an original thinker, and a mesmerizing lecturer.  He was a generous friend.”

Victor Tomseth, former ambassador to Laos wrote “Ben was a great intellect and a great teacher. A true inspiration.”

One of Ben’s many Thai friends Sujit Wongthes had this to say about Ben: “Ajarn Ben is no longer a political scientist; he is no longer a historian; he is now a wise sage for the whole world.” On a personal note, Ben was my professor and close mentor throughout our 48 years of friendship.  Even though we have been colleagues at Cornell and in the Southeast Asia Program for the past 34 years, he was always my spiritual guardian, wise counsel, and above all my cherished friend.  He told me one time that I was his only student who achieved “high political office” when I worked briefly and the Deputy Government Spokesman for the first Prem regime in Thailand.  He said that with his typical enigmatic Mona Lisa smile.  I am sure that he was relieved that I lasted less than a year in that post before seeing the light to return to work at Cornell.

Ben was godfather to our two children.  Ben was my squash partner when both of us were still fit to run around the squash court.  Like everything else about Ben, his outer appearance belies his inner strength and tenacity.  Ben, as we all know, does not have the physique of a star athlete.  Truth be told, I would say he was on the chubby side.  I am nine years his junior and back then fit as a fiddle.  Yet in the many years that I played squash with Ben I failed to best him. 

He would never gloat but always had, again, that kind smile on his face as if to say “Poor Thak, try harder next time.”  These past ten years, Ben has been my partner in crime whenever we got together to consume copious amounts of gin, whiskey or bourbon. We would reminisce about the ‘good old days’ at 102 West Avenue, and gossip about our many friends.  And of course, Charnwit and Yoshi Kato were always our favorite targets for juicy gossip.

Ben’s passing has been written up in newspapers throughout the world, notably the New York Times, celebrating his scholarly contributions to the study of nationalism and studies of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.  But a most touching tribute was written by Philip Cunningham a former student of Ben’s in the Bangkok Post, December 15 2015.  To wit: “When I studied with Ben Anderson at Cornell (as an undergraduate) in the mid-1970s 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 (for penning the Cornell White Paper with Ruth McVey that debunked the army’s claim that the PKI was behind the GESTAPU) only added to his aura. Giving lectures about coups, 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 mellifluous Irish-accented voice. Ajan Ben was one of Cornell’s most accomplished professor, but he was too self-effacing to play the role of an 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 outrageously shy, artistic and political.  Both were gadflies and contrarians, successful by conventional social standards, yet quick to attach the establishment and advocate for the poor and dispossessed.”

Ben you are an inspiration to us all.  We may not be able to live your exemplary life of the mind, but we shall do our best to make you proud.