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Bandung spirit

Bandung spirit

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, 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 a Cambridge college, had a clue.

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.

Read: Asia, Africa to mark summit that forged post-colonial path

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 underrepresented, largely because much of it was still colonised; the most prominent African leader present was Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast, which was yet to emerge as independent Ghana.

The conference had jointly been proposed by Burma, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and China’s participation added considerably to its significance. A modus vivendi with Beijing was vitally important to many of China’s neighbours, 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 better known as 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 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 $46bn 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.

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. Other key participants included Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (presumably as an observer), Ho Chi Minh from newly liberated North Viet­nam, and the host nation’s president, Sukarno.

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 (that emerged shortly afterwards, 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.

While the US was officially less than amused by Bandung’s potential as a Third World declaration of independence, several American non-white organisations paid close attention to the conference proceedings, and Malcolm X cited it as an ideology-transcending model for African-American cooperation on the civil rights front. The world has changed much in the intervening decades. A new Cold War looms, even as holdovers from the last one continue to seek paths of resolution.

There can be little doubt that much of what is recorded in Indonesia this week — where representatives from 77 states are marking the anniversary of the 1955 conference — will be rhetoric. Should any of the gathered leaders sincerely recognise, 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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Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2015

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