Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Capital of Asia-Africa

The Capital of Asia-Africa

Eighty leaders from Asia and Africa representing two-thirds of the world's population ended their summit in Bandung today in commemoration of a similar conference held 50 years ago at the same venue, Gedung Merdeka.

The conference in 1955 was a monumental event because it was the first that the leaders from so many newly independent nations met in one place. Freed finally from the shackles of colonialism, there was great optimism and hope in the air; these young nations could finally determine their own future and "do the right thing" for their own people. The success of the conference inspired the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

The conference 50 years ago was opened by Sukarno. The venue, Gedung Merdeka, was formerly a social elite club for the Dutch, known as the Societiet Concordia. The hallowed halls of Gedung Merdeka were graced by the presence of the who's who of post-war Asia and Africa: Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; PM of China, Chou En-Lai; President Nasser of Egypt and Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, among others.

I'm quite familiar with the conference because I did some research about it for my article on Bandung which I wrote for a magazine two years ago. Many of the conference delegates then were placed at the Homann and Preanger Hotel--both which are still standing today, although they have gone through substantial renovations since.

This morning, the leaders nostalgically retraced the historical walk from the Homann Hotel to Gedung Merdeka across the street (renamed Jalan Asia Afrika), which their leaders took fifty years ago on the opening day of the summit.

I've spent a couple of weekends during my time in Bandung, loitering around the Jalan Asia-Afrika area, snapping photos and checking out all the historical landmarks there. Gedung Merdeka today is a museum exhibiting photos of the 1955 conference. In the main conference hall, one can see life-sized wax figures of the leaders who attended the summit, with Sukarno standing at the podium, giving the key-note address.

What a stirring speech Sukarno gave, delivered in English with his sonorous Javanese accent. He urged the newly independent nations to emulate Indonesia: "Brothers and sisters, Indonesia is Asia-Africa in small...Make the 'live and let live' principle and the Unity in Diversity (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) motto the unifying force which brings us all together...".

The conference was a great success. Nehru captured the heady feeling of optimism generated from the conference in his closing speech by declaring Bandung "the focal center" and "capital of Asia-Africa".

The Asia-Africa conference of Bandung in 1955 perhaps marked the pinnacle of Sukarno's reputation as one of the most prominent leaders of the Third World. It was a time of great innocence. All the Asian-African nations were soon to find out that gaining independence was the easy part; the path towards successful nationhood is one fraught with enormous challenges.

How many Asian and African countries can claim to have achieved success? Many have even retrogressed through decades of civil war and despotic governance. Malaysia, which was only on the verge of gaining independence then, has been relatively successful in comparison. We could do a lot better of course but we could so easily have descended into chaos too. It's a struggle which every generation will have to fight. Nothing is to be taken for granted. Each generation must be reminded of the lessons of history.

What will the next fifty years bring? Bandung today is plagued with pollution and over-congestion. Everyone laments how much things have changed over the years: the cool weather, the verdant hills of Parahyangan, the rich charms of the Sundanese culture, the Art-Deco architecture of Bandung's Golden Age--they are all disappearing under the name of progress. I've spent a lot of time studying what Bandung was like back then but what will it look like in the future?

Who knows, maybe I'll be able to revisit this topic again in fifty years time :-)

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