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The Spirit of Bandung

Dr. G V C Naidu was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 30, 2005

    Exactly fifty years back in 1955 leaders from 29 countries spanning Asia and Africa met in the town of Bandung on West Java in Indonesia from April 18 to 25 to deliberate on a new strategy they should adopt vis-à-vis the rest of the world to make their voice heard and to make their presence felt at a time when the world was in grips of the most intensive ideological warfare between those who ardently advocated communism and those opposed it as fervently led respectively by the former Soviet Union and the United States. That these ideological fights would end up as proxy wars in the newly liberated and yet to be liberated of countries of the South became crystal clear with the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. The American direct military intervention in Vietnam in 1954 after the French failed to subdue the spirited nationalist movement of that country further reinforced what had been suspected by some enlightened leaders such as India’s Nehru and Indonesia’s Sukarno. Simultaneously, vast majority of the in Africa were still reeling under the colonial rule where many were waging armed struggles.

    Much of the economic power and military muscle was heavily concentrated in the West and, despite partial decolonization, their stranglehold on their former colonies was still very strong. Most of the countries in the South had very little option other than chose one of the pillars that dominated world politics.

    This was the backdrop against which the Bandung Conference was held. Given the circumstances prevalent then, the primary focus of this Conference was anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. All the prominent and well-known leaders of that time attended the Conference such as, aside from Nehru and Sukarno, Kwame Nkrumah, prime minister of the Gold Coast (later Ghana), Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, Chou En Lai, premier of China, Ho Chi Minh, prime minister of Vietnam. Many other Asian and African nations, including Japan, sent representatives.

    It was an attempt to carve a niche for the countries of the South and towards that end the Bandung Conference was instrumental in creating and advancing the concept of positive neutralism. While it was known that many newly independent countries like India had advocated to maintain neutrality by refusing to take sides with either of the ideological groupings of the West, positive neutralism was supposed to be different from being merely neutral. It meant to take active part in global politics for the promotion of decolonization and to get a better deal for the countries of the South. It was envisaged that the primary location to play that role would be the United Nations.

    A major upshot of the movement that started at Bandung gradually encompassed other developing countries was the emergence in 1961 a new global movement called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as the third alternative. Thus, the Bandung was instrumental in laying the foundation for NAM which became a significant force in the sixties and the seventies. NAM forced the adoption of resolutions at the United Nation for New International Economic Order and New International Information Order that led to the earmarking of considerable sums as aid by the developed to the developing nations. It is not as though NAM had such a smooth sailing forging the Third World solidarity. If the pro-U.S. 1965 military coup in Indonesia was the first blow, there were other developments that dented the credibility of NAM, for instance the a signing of a peace and friendship agreement between India and the Soviet Union in 1971, the emergence of dictatorship in Egypt, etc. Military coups and authoritarian regimes gaining access to power in many countries in Africa and Latin America further weakened the movement.

    By the time the second round of the Cold War got underway starting from the emergence of the Indochina countries as communist defeating the U.S. in the mid-1970s, the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1978, and a series of other developments in Africa and Southeast Asia, NAM, although had more than 100 nations as members, had become too amorphous and the principles for which it had been fighting for had become too vague and impractical.

    The emergence of economic tigers in Asia, called the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs), and many others abandoning the socialist path that the leading countries had been advocating created a serious ideological crisis for NAM. Successful economic policies these countries pursued underscored the significance of attracting direct investments from and opening up of the markets of the developed countries rather than harping on doles in the form of aid. The non-aligned movement included such diverse countries- rabidly anti-communist and pro-American like Singapore and Indonesia to communist zealot such as Vietnam and Cuba, that it became impossible to evolve a common agenda.

    Whatever little residual relevance that the non-aligned movement had disappeared with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. It was no more possible to use the earlier tactic of pitting one super power against the other to extract some political and economic mileage. With the discrediting of the communist ideology, anything even remotely connected to that ideology was distanced from. Market forces, liberalization, globalization, etc., became the new buzzwords. There was no common interest or political philosophy among the developing world except advancement of one’s interests in whatever way possible.

    By the time the golden jubilee of the Bandung Conference was celebrated in April 2005, people had virtually forgotten about the non-aligned movement. One might wonder why such a big show was put up by Indonesia and what was expected to be achieved. It has been obvious that what has been touted as inevitable the process of globalization is and the wonders it has been doing in promoting the prosperity and development of the developing world, certain basic concerns linger on. No doubt some countries have benefited from globalization but vast majority of people has remained poor and has not seen the fruits of this prosperity. Income disparities are growing within most of the developing countries as also between the developed and developing nations as well. There could not be a better country than Indonesia that can understand the ravages of globalization as witnessed in the aftermath of the 1997-98 financial crisis that hit the Asia Pacific region. It is yet to recover from the debilitating effects it has had on its economy which pushed more than 70 million people below the poverty line literally overnight. If China’s recent breakneck speed growth is showcased as a miracle, there is a downside to it in terms of massive environmental degradation, indiscriminate use of resources in an unproductive way, and social dislocation by way population movement seeking employment. Developed world is relocating all those polluting and less value-added industries to the developing countries in the name of economic development.

    Therefore, the current Bandung summit can be a good opportunity to have a serious introspection and to draw a new political agenda for the developing countries to not only strike a better deal vis-à-vis the North but also renew their own cooperation. Moreover, there is a host of other issues that can only be tackled with the cooperation several countries. For instance, terrorism, drug pedaling, gunrunning, human trafficking, etc., are impinging on these countries. Similarly, no one can be expected to resolve a number of recurring problems such as poverty and inter-ethnic hostilities in Africa. There are also several diseases like AIDS, SARS, avian flu, etc., that require greater cooperation and coordination among the developing countries in order to fight them.

    So far there are no indications that an institutional mechanism might be set up by those that attended the recent summit meeting but that may become inevitable if some of the above mentioned problems afflicting these are to be addressed.

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