‘We are of many different nations, we are of many different social backgrounds and cultural patterns. Our ways of life are different. Our national characters, or colors or motifs – call it what you will – are different. Our racial stock is different, and even the color of our skin is different. But what does that matter? Mankind is united or divided by considerations other than these. Conflict comes not from the variety of skins, not from variety of religion, but from variety of desires.”
Reading this quote in a museum in Bandung, Indonesia, gave me goosebumps. Not only is the quote true, but it is also relevant with the current global situation – as if it was just stated recently. Any idea on who said these words and when? Hint: picture below.
Yes, it was President Soekarno in 1955 during the opening session of the Asian African Conference (also known as the Bandung Conference). Held in April, the Conference even occurred prior to Indonesia’s first general election, which was in September 1955.
With its current international stature, it would come as no surprise if Indonesia hosts a grand international event. However, the situation was very different back then.
APRIL 1955. Less than ten years after Indonesia proclaimed its independence. It definitely sounds like more than enough time to organize an international conference but we to have bear in mind that Indonesia had still been involved in an armed struggle against the Netherlands to maintain its independence between 1945 and 1949. Then, in 1950, Indonesia established a parliamentary system in place of the previously existing presidential system. The parliamentary system turned out to be unstable, both politically and economically. Yet Indonesia was certainly determined to materialize its constitutional mandate: “to participate toward the establishment of a world order based on freedom, perpetual peace, and social justice.”
Therefore, notwithstanding domestic challenges, Indonesia managed to successfully convene the Asian-African Conference. Twenty-nine like-minded countries from the continents of Asia and Africa (twenty-three from Asia and six from Africa) gathered together at the Conference, including all independent Southeast Asian country then: Burma (currently Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Viet Nam, and State of Viet Nam. The spirit of the Conference was anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism, as well as advancing peace and enhanced cooperation among nations in Asia and Africa. It was the first Conference of its kind and of that scale.
The impact of the conference was significant. It boosted the determination of Asian and African countries to become independent. In 1955, thirty countries in Asia and Africa were independent. Ten years after the Conference, thirty-six more countries gained freedom from their foreign colonial powers. Moreover, six years after the Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement was born – founded by some of the founding members of the Asian African Conference (Indonesia and India) and involving Latin America as well.
Visiting the Museum of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung made me realize that sometimes, you do not have to be great power to initiate a change. The Conference was held against the backdrop of the Cold War where there were two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. Indonesia, the host, was just a newly independent country and had just started rebuilding itself after hundreds of years of war against its colonial powers. However, Indonesia did just as my graduate school professor once said, “never miss a chance to inspire people.”
In 2005, 50 years after the Conference took place, Indonesia hosted the Golden Jubilee of the Asian-African Conference. It was attended by 106 countries in Asia and Africa, as well as 18 international organizations, and the then Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan.
By the way, the museum guide told us some “behind-the-scene” stories and I think two among them are worth mentioning.
First, one delegate was named the most handsome delegate and that person was 30-ish-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia (photo shown below). A newspaper reporting about the Conference even referred to him as “the Ladykiller.” If the Conference had happened in recent years, there might have been #ladykiller or #AACHottie in social media (teehee!).
Second, Sudan sent delegates to the Conference even though it was not yet independent then. The Sudanese delegation did not bring a flag and so the Indonesian government decided to imprint the word “SUDAN” on a white flag and raised it alongside the flags of other participating countries. It was a very simple flag yet the Sudanese delegates were not upset. Instead, they thanked the Indonesian government and proudly said that the first time the Sudanese flag was raised was not in its own country, but in Indonesia.
By Dira Tiarasari FABRIAN, ASEAN Correspondent from Indonesia