Reviving the Bandung Spirit

The writer, Chief of Staff Luhut Pandjaitan (far left), accompanying Indonesian President Joko Widodo (centre), Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture Puan Maharani (front row, second from right), Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (far
The writer, Chief of Staff Luhut Pandjaitan (far left), accompanying Indonesian President Joko Widodo (centre), Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture Puan Maharani (front row, second from right), Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (far right) and other top officials last week as they inspected preparations for this week's Asia-Africa conference in Bandung. The conference was first hosted in Bandung 60 years ago.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

INDONESIA brought the post-colonial world together when it hosted the first Asia-Africa conference in the town of Bandung in April 1955.

Sixty years later this week, it is marking that historic occasion by gathering nations, both to commemorate the "Bandung Spirit" and to look at the prospects of the developing world.

The Bandung Spirit, which emerged from the 1955 conference, was embodied in what was known as Bandung's Ten Principles. Among these were political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality.

These principles might sound like platitudes today, so deeply have they become entrenched in the norms, if not always the practice, of international relations. They were anything but definitive six decades ago.

In the 1950s, a large part of humanity was divided between colonial powers which believed that they were the arbiters of international destiny, and post- colonial states which believed and behaved otherwise. The latter, and other new states, wanted their sovereignty to be recognised as genuine, and their freedom of choice and action to be respected by all.

Twenty-nine of these states were represented by their leaders at the Bandung Conference. The stellar cast included Sukarno of Indonesia, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Zhou Enlai of China, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and U Nu of Burma (now Myanmar). They spoke on behalf of their own countries as well as colonised nations yet to become independent.

The Bandung Spirit flowered as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM was a defiant declaration against the international divisions spawned by the Cold War between the United States, the leader of the capitalist world, and the Soviet Union, the leader of the communist world. This ideological East-West divide coincided roughly with a hemispheric divide between the North, home to the colonial or capitalist powers, and the South, the refuge of history's dispossessed whose other name was the Third World.

NAM announced the possibilities of solidarity between the nations of the Third World in the economic, political and cultural spheres. The Bandung Conference had nurtured some of the first stirrings of post-colonial nationalism that took institutional form in NAM, which came into being in Belgrade in 1961. Sukarno, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Nasser, Nehru and Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana were instrumental in establishing this movement.

Looking ahead

ALL that occurred then. Why is the Bandung Spirit relevant today? The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union is no more, the East-West conflict has passed into history, and globalisation has erased the sharp contours of the North-South divide. The centre of global economic activity is passing to Asia. Today, Indonesia is a confident member of the Group of 20 sunrise economies, not a newly decolonised nation. Why, then, invoke the spirit of past times? What purpose will this month's gathering serve?

One important purpose is to get countries taking more seriously the divisions that globalisation is creating in the global South. The success stories of China, India or Indonesia are real, but even they do not obscure the wide disparities of wealth and life chances that are created and exacerbated by globalisation. Indeed, the First and Third worlds now exist within nations, if not between them.

At the same time, not all nations can benefit from globalisation equally. There are losers and winners. Unlike the stock or property market, where losing and winning are two sides of the same coin, countries are political and civic entities, not merely markets.

Asia and Africa are witness to the diversity of globalisation. The interaction of leaders from those continents, and elsewhere, would give them an opportunity to begin a conversation on sharing their experience of encountering the global movement of capital, investment, goods and ideas.

South-South cooperation, one of the central themes of the commemorative event this week, is not a fashionable slogan. It is a real attempt to ensure the benefits of globalisation can be shared more equitably among the teeming masses that make up the majority of the world's population.

That effort resonates with the Bandung Spirit.

The well-being of the global South has strategic significance as well. Although a new Cold War is not in the offing - at least, not yet - the contours of great-power rivalry are getting clearer.

Here in Asia, the rise of China has placed its relationship with the United States in clearer perspective. Asians do not want a repeat of US-Soviet rivalry or, later, Sino-Soviet rivalry in the form of having to choose sides between Beijing and Washington today.

This is true of Africa as well. China has extended its economic sphere of influence to the continent, setting the stage for an eventual contest with the West in general and the US in particular. Africans are intensely aware of how great-power rivalry can pull a continent apart, to the detriment of millions.

Here, again, Asians and Africans should engage in a conversation to protect their interests from being overshadowed by great-power rivalry.

This would be in keeping with the Bandung Spirit.

Actually, this is not a new effort. Indonesia hosted a commemorative gathering on the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Conference 10 years ago. It invoked the Bandung Spirit in charting plans for concrete cooperation between Asia and Africa as part of global collaborative efforts. The parleys led to the creation of the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership.

This week's conference must build on that initiative.

One overlapping area of interest between Asia and Africa is the Middle East. The violent upheavals there - including the depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - are not rooted in Islam but in systemic instability that has twisted religious thinking for political ends. Indonesia has first-hand experience of preventing terrorism from capturing the political agenda while keeping open channels of religious interaction and harmony.

Democracy is key to striking that balance. Indonesia could share its experience with its international partners in the context of an Asian-African dialogue, which would also be a dialogue among world civilisations.

Finally, Indonesia's decision to host the latest conference attests to its free and active foreign policy. That policy remains a centrepiece of its self-perception today, as it was in 1955.

Indonesians hope that their friends from Asia and Africa will join them in celebrating a benchmark gathering in the 1950s that has become synonymous with the desire of the decolonised world to take charge of its own destiny.

Taking charge of one's destiny - now, that is a work always in progress.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is Indonesian President Joko Widodo's Chief of Staff and the overall chairman of the Asian-African Conference 60th Commemoration national committee.