Revisiting the Spirit of Ban dung in 1955

Revisiting the Spirit of Ban dung in 1955

In the third of a five-part series of articles on Indonesia, Post editor-in-chief Michael Hayes looks at the historic Asian-African Conference that took place in Bandung in April 1955. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai attended, as did then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Photo by: MICHAEL HAYES

The original Cambodian flag used at the conference in 1955 is still kept with others at the Museum of the Asian-African Conference, as displayed by Desmond Satria Andrian. Inset: Sudan, which attended but was only "half free", did not have its own flag, so the conference organisers had one made in Bandung.

BANDUNG, Indonesia-By 1955 the Cold War, pitting liberal democracy in the United States and Western Europe against communism spearheaded by the Soviet Union, was in full swing.  The superpowers and their allies/proxies were engaged in a massive arms race, and the quest for nuclear weapons superiority was under way.

In 1948, the "Iron Curtain" hardened, resulting in the Berlin airlift to keep West Berlin from being strangled by the Soviets. The following year the Soviet Union announced it too had the atomic bomb.  Depending on what side of the ideological divide you were on, by October 1949 China had either "fallen to the Reds" or had been "liberated" by Mao Tse-tung and the forces of international socialism.

Full-scale war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950 when the communist North invaded the US-backed South.  The UN sided with the West and sent in a multinational force that was almost completely routed.  US General Douglas MacArthur's bold Inchon landing prevented a military debacle, but the Chinese army eventually entered the fray, resulting in a military stalemate that exists to this day.

There was also during this time the ongoing issue of colonialism and the interests by subjugated peoples in Asia and Africa to achieve independence from Western imperial powers.  Some states had been granted independence shortly after the end of World War II. However, from 1949 up until 1953 little movement had been seen on this front.

In 1954, after a protracted struggle, the Vietnamese forces under Ho Chi Minh surprised the world by defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu in May.  By July 20 the Geneva Accords had been signed, which ended the French colonial presence in Indochina, but which left Vietnam partitioned.  

Cambodia, after a determined campaign led by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, secured its independence in November of the previous year.

During these years tensions were high as well in the Taiwan Strait. Two little-known and now barely remembered islands named Matsu and Quemoy could have been the flash point for full-scale war between China and the US, which had stated its determination to defend Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan.

Fears existed that conflict would result in the use of nuclear weapons, and many world leaders from countries that had achieved independence since the end of World War II were looking for ways to avoid more conflagration.

It was within this environment the moves arose to find alternative ways of dealing with an increasingly polarised and tense world order.

While diplomats were wrestling with details about the future of Indochina in Geneva in 1954, a separate meeting took place in Colombo, Ceylon, which included India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan's Prime Minister Mohammed Ali, Ceylon's Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala, Burma's Prime Minister U Nu and Indonesia's Prime Minister Ali Sastroamidjojo, all representing newly independent nations.  

It was here that Indonesia's Sastroamidjojo put forth the idea of a larger meeting of leaders from Asia and Africa to discuss ways of dealing with the dangers posed by the Cold War and how the newly independent nations from Asia and Africa should assert themselves in a fragile post-colonial environment.

Eight months later, a second meeting took place in Bogor, Indonesia, just outside of Jakarta, where it was conclusively decided to convene a conference to which all independent or self-governing countries from Asia and Africa would be invited.  It was also decided that the site for this historic event would be Bandung.

Scratching the surface

"This is the first intercontinental conference of coloured peoples in the history of mankind," declared Indonesia's President Sukarno at the conference's opening address, delivered on April 18, 1955.

India's Prime Minister Nehru was quoted as saying that the conference "marked the political emergence in world affairs of over half the world's population".

Leaders from 27 nations were in attendance at the conference (see box).

On the surface the conference was a huge success. It had drawn major international media attention with over 400 reporters and photographers coming from abroad to cover the event, thereby giving voice to some of the world's newest, independent leaders.

However, behind the scenes, and not unlike all international gatherings of this nature, there were some serious issues that caused friction among attendees. One was the question of the Soviet Union.  Was the USSR with its Eastern European "satellites" a colonising power?  Some members thought so, including Iraq and Iran, whose representatives had mentioned it in their speeches.  

But the issue was stirred up further when one of the conference's sponsors, Sir John Kotelawala from Ceylon, unexpectedly said in a speech:

"...those satellite states under communist domination in Central and Eastern Europe...Are not these colonies as much as the colonial territories in Africa and Asia? And if we are united in our opposition to colonialism, should it not be our duty openly to declare our opposition to Soviet colonialism as much as to Western imperialism?"

The comments drew an immediate protest from China's Premier Chou En-lai, and the issue simmered behind close doors.

Photo by: Michael Hayes

Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then age 32 and the youngest leader to attend the Bandung conference, meets with Indonesian Prime Minister Ali Sastromidjojo, shown in a photo on the wall of the conference museum.

The second issue that rankled attendees was that of being "aligned" or "non-aligned".  Many smaller states felt that given the paucity of their military strength it behooved them to form alliances with larger powers.  At the time the US was in the process of building collective security pacts; and several states present at Bandung, including Thailand and the Philippines, were already members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

India was dead set against such alliances and wanted the conference to issue a final statement saying so.

In the end, after days of tough negotiations, the conference issued a final communique and what has come to be known as the Ten Bandung Principles, which reflect a rather diverse amalgam of ideals and principles advanced by different attendees. 

With hindsight, historians generally agree that it was more important that consensus was  achieved rather than the lofty substance of the declarations themselves.

While the Bandung Conference is considered the birthplace of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an organisation that continues to this day and which has almost 120 members, whatever sentiments expressed in 1955 concerning Asian-African solidarity ran quickly into the harsh realities of regional and local politics.

By 1961 India and China were at war over border issues.  The Sino-Soviet split, which also developed at this time, added another confrontational dimension to global politics. Efforts to hold a 10-year anniversary Asian-African Conference in Algeria in 1965 fell apart after Algerian President Ben Bella was overthrown that year, Sukarno faced a coup and China's Chou En-lai's power was weakened by the onset of the Cultural Revolution.

Looking back, Australian professor Jamie Mackie sums up the conference as follows:  "The Bandung Conference can best be seen today as a fleeting moment of convergence of various trends in the postcolonial history of the world. It produced a high-water mark of dedication to noble ideals, high hopes and also some shrewd politics among the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. But that moment of convergence soon gave way to divergence and to disputes, recriminations and wars among them in the 1960s, as the world order became more fissured and multipolar."

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