The 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung was held under the shadow of colonialism and certain political blocs that dictated much of international affairs at that time. The conference was attended by charismatic leaders of Asia (23) and Africa (6) who had only just recently led their nations to independence.
It was an attempt to find an alternative world order — a harmonious coexistence among nations — and to build economic and political collaboration. Specifically, it was also an attempt to establish their identity as a group of nations that valued sovereignty and challenged colonialism. Sixty years have passed and we are now living in a very different world. The decolonization process is complete; the Cold War is over and the Soviet bloc has lost, even the Soviet Union no longer exists; and, of course, as Thomas Friedman said, the world is flat.
History, to borrow from Francis Fukuyama, has ended, and liberalism/capitalism has won; therefore, there is only one trajectory toward which the world is heading: global capitalism. Furthermore, some would also argue that the economic projects (or more precisely economic ideas) that came out of or were inspired by the 1955 Bandung Conference failed to realize the dreams of the conference. Collaboration between nations following the conference was unable to translate its political and economic insights into a workable framework, both in the context of South-South and South-North relations.
This failure, which is clearly reflected in the poverty and miserable human conditions in much of Asia and Africa long after the conference, reminds us that the conference had no significant impact on the lives of most Asians and Africans, let alone offering an alternative world order. Seen from this perspective, the Asian-African Conference is just one episode in a history that is now irrelevant. So, is there really a reason to commemorate and, aside from the pom-poms, what should we expect from the 2015 commemoration?
It is exactly because many of the dreams of the 1955 Bandung Conference were not realized that it is important to commemorate it. The world today is no less fragile than it was in 1955. In its poverty, Africa today still faces fatal health problems such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola. Malaria and tuberculosis still kill millions in the continent because the governments are unable to deliver even the most basic health services. The 1955 Asian-African Conference offered a vision of struggle against exploitation and domination. For the participating nations, it was also a quest for psychological strength to play a role in creating a world characterized by a peaceful and harmonious coexistence between nations and people.
The cynics of the world at the time mocked the conference. What could these countries — whose population was illiterate, impoverished and recently independent — do? Sukarno’s answer to that question was very inspiring: “We can do a lot! We can inject the voice of reason into world affairs. We can mobilize all the spiritual, all the moral, all the political strength of Asia and Africa on the side of peace. Yes, we! We, the peoples of Asia and Africa, 1,400,000,000 strong, far more than half the human population of the world, we can mobilize what I have called the Moral Violence of Nations in favor of peace. We can demonstrate to the minority of the world that lives on the other continents that we, the majority, are for peace, not for war, and that whatever strength we have will always be thrown on the side of peace.”
Sukarno’s speech epitomizes the exuberant spirit and self-confidence of these new emerging nations, despite the seemingly impossible situations they were in. Richard Wright, the African-American journalist who attended the conference, admiringly reported in his book The Color Curtain (1956), that in Bandung “the despised, the insulted, the dispossessed — in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale.”
It is this global consciousness, enthusiasm and confidence that the “underdogs of the world” can do something for peace and to alleviate human suffering that needs to be revived. Of course, just the revival of the spirit will not be sufficient. Can today’s underdogs of the world show the “moral violence” in the face of poverty, war, terrorism, ethnic and religious conflict, intolerance, discrimination and economic exploitation often blatantly displayed around the world today? That is (still) the challenge of this conference.
Abdul Malik Gismar is associate director of Paramadina Graduate School, Jakarta