The ghosts of Bandung

The ghosts of Bandung

The ghosts of Bandung
On a lazy afternoon a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity, after several decades, to reacquaint myself with University Challenge, a longstanding BBC television presentation that tests the general knowledge of teams from rival institutions.
One of the questions raised by the host, Jeremy Paxman, on this particular occasion related to the identity of an Indonesian city that gave its name to a significant international conference six decades ago. Neither of the teams, representing Durham University and Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, had a clue.
One of the contestants volunteered “Java?”, evidently without realizing that the nomenclature refers to an island rather than a city, while the opposing side offered Jakarta, or it might have been Bali, as an answer.
The correct answer was Bandung, but it is hardly surprising that this particular name did not ring a bell. It does not, after all, figure prominently in western historical accounts of the 1950s. And it is unlikely that the 60th anniversary commemorations in Indonesia this week will substantially alter that status.
Back in the day, though, the African Asian Conference in Bandung attracted attention pretty much across the globe as the first gathering on this scale of leaders mostly from post-colonial states, demonstrating their keenness to establish a framework for cooperation outside the Cold War paradigm. The heads of state and government who congregated in the Indonesian city represented half of humanity — thanks, in large part, to the participation of China and India. Africa was under-represented, largely because much of it was still colonized by the West; the most prominent African leader present was Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast, subsequently renamed Ghana, which was yet to obtain complete independence. The conference had jointly been proposed by Burma, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (still known as Ceylon back then), and China’s participation, less than seven years after the People’s Republic had been established, added considerably to its significance.
A modus vivendi with Beijing was vitally important to many of China’s neighbors, and it was obvious that mutually respectful relations would need to be established outside the sphere of American hostility to the communist entity. Zhou Enlai went out of his way to be conciliatory, taking ideological critiques in his stride.
In his speech to the closing session of the conference on April 24, the Chinese premier noted that he had, two days earlier, visited his Pakistani counterpart, Muhammad Ali Bogra, who had assured him “that Pakistan did not join the Manila Pact (the US-sponsored entity founded in 1954 and subsequently better known as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or Seato) for the purpose of opposing China, nor does Pakistan suspect China of having aggressive intentions. Just like that, we have obtained mutual understanding.
“The prime minister of Pakistan even guaranteed that if the US undertook aggressive actions or started a world war, then Pakistan would not participate — just as Pakistan and India did not participate in the Korean War.”
Back then, Beijing enjoyed considerably warmer ties with New Delhi than with Karachi; the tables turned some years later, after a border dispute between India and China sparked hostilities that soured the relationship for decades. It could certainly be argued, meanwhile, that the $46 billion Chinese investment windfall President Xi Jinping brought to Pakistan — on his way to the 60th anniversary commemorations in Indonesia — reflects elements of the often elusive Bandung spirit, even though China is undoubtedly a very different kettle of fish compared with its priorities and inclinations 60 years ago. Back in 1955, the conference owed a proportion of its prestige to the presence of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, an internationally respected paragon of neutrality notwithstanding his perceived softness toward communism. Other key participants included Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and of course the host nation’s president, Sukarno. The Saudi delegation was led by Prince Faisal. A divided Vietnam was represented twice, with Ho Chi Minh at the helm of the team from the newly liberated North.
Opposition to colonialism and racism were key themes of the conference, which eventually adopted a 10-point resolution incorporating the Panchasheela, or the five principles of peaceful coexistence, which Nehru in particular considered crucial to mutually respectful relations between countries.
Not all the nations represented at Bandung were able to live up to the ideal for long, but the conference nonetheless sowed the seeds for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that emerged shortly afterward, with Nehru, Nasser and Tito as its leading lights. The value of the counterbalance that NAM provided to the Cold War may have been dubious, but it nonetheless succeeded in periodically parading the possibility of an alternative to a mutually destructive superpower confrontation — and in highlighting the fact that there was a great deal more to the world than the Big Two and their chief allies. While the US was officially less than amused by Bandung’s potential as a Third World declaration of independence, several American non-white organizations paid close attention to the conference proceedings, and Malcolm X cited it years later as an ideology-transcending model for African-American cooperation on the civil rights front. The world — and, for that matter, Indonesia itself — has changed much in the intervening decades, especially after the bipolar confrontation gave way to unipolar hegemony. A new cold war looms, even as holdovers from the last one continue to seek paths of resolution, as witnessed most recently in the evolving rapprochement between the US and Cuba.
There can be little doubt that much of what is recorded in Indonesia this week — where representatives from 77 states, including 34 heads of state or government, are marking the 60th anniversary of the 1955 conference — will be empty rhetoric. Should any of the gathered leaders sincerely recognize, though, that key elements of the Bandung spirit remain worthy of respect and perhaps even emulation, the anniversary could possibly exceed expectations.
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