Bandung conference and its relevance

by Anis Chowdhury | Published: 01:05, Apr 19,2017


Leaders at Bandung in 1955.

THE Bandung conference, a meeting of Afro-Asian leaders, held sixty-two years ago, in April 18–25, 1955, represented a landmark in the emergence of the third-world non-aligned movement, aimed to promote the political and diplomatic autonomy of less developed countries in the face of international cold war politics.
Amidst the fear of another devastating war breaking out, president Soekarno, in his opening address at the Bandung conference, confidently declared on behalf of the peoples of Africa and Asia to mobilise and unleash what he termed, ‘the Moral Violence of Nations in favour of peace.’
Alas, the world of today is no different from what it was in 1955. In the words of president Soekarno, ‘Yes, we are living in a world of fear. The life of man today is corroded and made bitter by fear. Fear of the future, fear of the hydrogen bomb, fear of ideologies. Perhaps this fear is a greater danger than the danger itself, because it is fear which drives men to act foolishly, to act thoughtlessly, to act dangerously.…’
President Soekarno also begged to differ with those who thought colonialism was dead. He drew attention to colonialism’s ‘modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control, actual physical control by a small but alien community within a nation. It is a skilful and determined enemy, and it appears in many guises. It does not give up its loot easily. Wherever, whenever and however it appears, colonialism is an evil thing, and one which must be eradicated from the earth…’
This was the spirit behind the historic Kagmari politico-cultural conference that Moulana Bhashani, the leader of Afro-Asia-Latin America’s toiling masses, organised on February 6–10, 1957, from where he opposed the decision of the then Awami League government of Pakistan, led by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, to join the United States-led military alliances CENTO and SEATO. Regrettably, the founder president of the Awami League, Moulana Bhashani, had to leave the party and Pakistan failed to perform its historic role, and in the process disintegrated.
Pakistan’s decision to join western military alliances may appear puzzling, given the fact that it was one of the five countries, along with Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Indonesia, which sponsored the Bandung conference. However, we now know the real motive of Pakistan. Apprehensive about the conference, which the US and its western allies, viewed as communist-inspired and thereby a possible platform for communist propaganda, encouraged their Asian clientele states — Japan, Pakistan and the Philippines — to participate in order to counteract any measures proposed by communists or their supporters.
The Bandung conference was followed up by the Belgrade conference in 1961, where the Non-Aligned Movement was founded under the leadership of Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Soekarno of Indonesia. Then the third-world countries formed the Group of 77 as a distinct constituency within the United Nations in 1964 to articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity on all major international economic issues within the United Nations system, and promote south-south cooperation for development.
The very fact that the leaders of the third world met to discuss their own agenda in Bandung was highly significant. It demonstrated their confidence in shaping the third world’s destiny on its own terms. They insisted that the third world’s opinions play a factor in international relations. They framed their most pressing issue as one of state-building, particularly economic development. To help state-building efforts, the third world leaders demanded that western countries should not only maintain a peaceful international environment; they should also reduce their weapons build-up in order to free up money for economic aid to third-world countries.
To continue the arms race, according to this view, was to ignore the wishes of the vast majority of the people in the world. In expressing this sentiment, the Bandung conference constituted a significant development in post-war history: the first serious challenge by the third world to the existing international order defined by the cold war. This eventually led to the adoption of the United Nations resolution on the establishment of a ‘New International Economic Order’ (NIEO) in 1974, based on equity, sovereign equality, interdependence, common interest and cooperation among all states, to correct inequalities and redress existing injustices; to eliminate the widening gap between the developed and the developing countries; and to ensure steadily accelerating economic and social development and peace and justice for present and future generations.
Unfortunately, the solidarity of the third world began to wane immediately after the adoption of the NIEO resolution in the wake of the rising oil prices that caused hardships for the majority of the third-world countries, but brought riches to a few of them. Thus, the third-world countries missed the opportunity to create a new global economic governance architecture to replace the collapsing Bretton Woods system, designed by the victors of World War II, and clearly was not aimed to support developing countries.
The world economic order that emerged since then, is lamentably different from what was envisaged in the NIEO. Deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation have led to unfettered globalisation where the multinational corporations and international financial institutions dominate on behalf of the powerful industrial countries, undermining economic sovereignty of poorer countries. Thus, the income and wealth gaps among nations and between individuals have widened unprecedentedly. While China, India, Indonesia and some other countries in Asia surged ahead majority of the African countries lagged far behind. At the same time within the emerging countries, such as China, India and Indonesia, income and wealth inequality rose to pass the level generally regarded as dangerous.
With its current membership of 134 countries, the Group of 77 plus China is the largest intergovernmental organisation of developing countries in the United Nations. On paper, it carries forward the Bandung spirit; but in reality is weak to influence international economic order. ‘Richer’ southern countries have increased their economic and technical supports for the ‘poorer’ ones; but, national interests of diverse countries within the group often collide.
More importantly, what president Soekarno warned at Bandung 62 years ago of a new and disguised face of colonialism, still remains active. In conspiring to divide the group and further weaken the solidarity among developing countries, the rich and powerful countries have co-opted emerging and populous members of the group into their expanded club, the G20.
Awkwardly, the co-opted countries include India and Indonesia, the sponsoring countries of the Bandung as well as China whose presence at the conference was looked at with great suspicion by the west. The co-opted members Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey do not always appear to be conscious of the ‘divide and rule’ scheme of the west.
Unfortunately, while China and India had cooperated closely at Bandung, their relationship declined because of an ongoing border dispute, culminating in a war in 1962. They still look at each other with suspicion. At the same, both China and India are seen as regional bullies by their neighbours.
Does it mean all is lost and the spirit of Bandung is dead for ever?
An African-American poet turned anti-racialist author, Richard Nathaniel Wright, said that the Bandung conference had introduced something new, something beyond left and right. He added that there were extra-political, extra-social, and almost extra-human aspects to the conference.
Wright was present in Bandung and directly observed the conference. He summarised his observation in his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, which was published in 1956:
‘The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed — in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting.… Who had thought of organising such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel. This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgement upon the Western world!’
The global south is no longer a collection of ‘despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed — in short, the underdogs’; they are the drivers of global economy. Time has, thus, come for the rising global south to collectively work for the unfinished business of a new international economic order; to stabilise commodity prices; to improve export incomes; to ensure food security; to demand improved access to markets in developed countries; to put a stop to siphoning off capital through dubious transfer pricing arrangements of multinational corporations and international tax havens; to eliminate the instability of the international monetary system; to ensure full and effective participation in all decision-making in all global bodies, including the IMF and the World Bank, and in formulating an equitable and durable monetary system.
In the spirit of Bandung, let us work together for the prosperity of our people and to protect our planet, and sing as president Soekarno did at the historic Bandung conference:
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!

Anis Chowdhury, a former professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, held senior United Nations positions during 2008–2015 in New York and Bangkok.

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