ABSTRACT By explaining the different trajectories that the “Bandung spirit” has taken since its inception in the mid-1950s, including various popular organizations which have not only been influenced by the Bandung conference but have taken the original ideas and actions into more progressive directions, I argue in this article that the inclusion of the popular element is not only important to understand the history of the “Bandung spirit” but is also a necessary part of our thinking about the future of Bandung as a political project.

Keywords: Bandung spirit, Asia-Africa, anti-colonial struggles, popular movements


There was much hope that the commemoration of the Asian-African Conference in April 2015 would bring the “Bandung spirit” back onto the international scene. President Jokowi of Indonesia who was inaugurated a few months earlier seemed fit to carry out the task. The businessman turned politician had little experience in national politics, let alone in the international arena, but his rise to power in some ways reflected the struggle against the old establishment. In the elections he defeated Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, head of the notorious special forces, with strong connections to the New Order government of General Suharto and massive support from the business oligarchies. In his 42-page political program called The Path of Change, Jokowi called for a return to ideology, particularly Sukarno’s Trisakti or Three Principles: political sovereignty, economic self-reliance, and cultural identity, in order to answer Indonesia’s contemporary problems.[1]

Expectations were even higher when Jokowi delivered his speech at the opening session of the commemoration. The content and tone of his speech was very different from General Suharto and General Yudhoyono, who led the previous commemorations as presidents in 1995 and 2005 respectively. The latter two tried to divert the “Bandung spirit” from its anti-colonial origin and somewhat progressive orientation into an abstract framework of mutual-benefit economic cooperation between countries in the South. In his speech Jokowi openly criticized the current global order where 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 70 percent of the world’s resources, and where the gap between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people within countries, is constantly increasing. He also criticized the “obsolete view” which clings to the belief that the only solution to the world’s economic and social problems are with the international financial institutions. The people of Asian and African countries should therefore unite to create a new global order based on the principles of justice, equality and prosperity.

He further problematized the role of the United Nations which has proven to be ineffective in preventing a group of rich countries to use their might in order to pursue their interest in the international arena. One of the examples here is the question of Palestine where numerous resolutions of both the UN General Assembly and Security Council were ignored by Isreali and United States governments. During the elections Jokowi repeatedly called for the Indonesian people to support the struggle of the Palestinian people. In his opening speech for the commemoration he said that in 1955 the Asian and African leaders pledged to support the Palestinian people to gain independence, and that this is still considered a debt to be paid by the current generation. In general, Jokowi’s speech revived the original ideas and spirit of solidarity, respect for human rights, and common prosperity.

However, the long applause of the audience that welcomed his speech did not resonate in the following sessions. After two days of discussions and side meetings there was no concrete proposal that reflected the resurgence of the “Bandung spirit.” The resolution of the conference entitled “Bandung Message” was very moderate in tone and has little energy to generate new perspectives and actions for a new global order. Even the business sector, which took a prominent place in the two-day commemoration, did not deliver a concrete proposal for a mutual-benefit business cooperation in the region. It seems that the “new emerging forces,” as Sukarno liked to call them, have turned old and established as well.

Does this mean the end of the “Bandung spirit”? In order to answer that question we need to explain the different trajectories that the “Bandung spirit” has taken since its inception in the mid-1950s. So far the focus has been on the newly independent states and their leaders such as Sukarno, Nehru and Nasser. Little attention has been paid to various popular organizations which have not only been influenced by the Bandung conference but have taken the original ideas and actions into more progressive directions. I would argue in this article that the inclusion of the popular element is not only important to understand the history of the “Bandung spirit” but is also a necessary part of our thinking about the future of Bandung as a political project.

A glimpse of history

The historical roots of the “Bandung spirit” can be traced back to various anti-colonial struggles in previous centuries but the immediate context which gave birth to the Bandung conference was a meeting between Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Srilanka and Myanmar – collectively called the Colombo Powers – in April and December 1954. In the first meeting the participants took the decision to hold a conference of Asian and African countries. It was a highly political project from the beginning. Divided by different political interests the main actors had a common agenda in containing regional conflicts and the domination of both the United States and the Soviet Union in the region. Invitations were initially confined to Asian and African member states of the United Nations but later extended to include non-members as well. The further selection of participants was highly political. China was invited at the expense of Taiwan while South Africa was not invited because of its apartheid system.

The conference took place on 18–24 April 1955 in Bandung, attended by state leaders and high officials from 29 countries, representing around 1.5 billion people of the region. Africa was represented by a mere six countries largely because much of the continent was still colonized. The participating countries despite their common status as former colonies had different historical trajectories under colonialism. In fact, European colonialism disrupted existing connections among particular parts of the region, such as Southeast and East Asia, South Asia and East Africa. In terms of ideology and political orientation, the participating countries were equally diverse, ranging from absolute monarchies to popular democratic and communist governments. What leaders like Sukarno, Nehru, and Nasser, had in common was the aspiration to define and assert their role in the new global order as an alternative to both sides of the Cold War divide. The Asian-African Conference serves this purpose very well indeed.

The Final Communique of the Conference elaborated the task and role of the newly independent states as to build a new global order based on self-determination, respect for human rights, solidarity, and peace. Economy and culture are two broad areas where future cooperation between the participating countries is expected to take place. In the former this would include technical cooperation, reform of the international financial system, price stabilization, and the establishment of national and regional banks. While in the field of culture, participating countries were expected to renew their old cultural contacts and develop new ones, and facilitate transfer of knowledge and technology. There was no intention to delink the Asian-African countries from the global capitalist order, which is a necessary part of defining a new global order based on justice, common prosperity and solidarity. It was in the realm of political action where the “delinking” strategy was carried out.

In May 1956 the Indonesian government revoked the agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, which among other things ensured the domination of foreign companies after independence. Indonesia entered the disadvantageous agreement and accepted the humiliating terms in 1949 after four years of devastating war and political rifts within the nationalist movement. Right after the law that revoked the agreement was passed Sukarno started to nationalize Dutch assets in Indonesia. Right after the law that revoked the agreement was passed Sukarno nationalized Dutch assets in Indonesia. A few months later Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in Egypt. Both actions induced reactions from the former colonial powers but did not stop the national governments from taking further steps. In the early 1960s a wave of nationalization swept the two continents which turned the colonial economy on its head. The Asian-African Conference gave the leaders of the newly independent states the confidence and support to restructure the colonial economy in a drastic manner.

The popular movements played an important role in pursuing a more radical agenda for the Asian-African Conference. In December 1957 another conference was convened in Cairo to discuss international solidarity in the struggle against colonialism. The conference was attended by state officials and representatives of various popular movements, from trade unions and peasant organizations to journalists associations and artist collectives. Both China and the Soviet Union, having seen the strength and potentials of the Asian-African newly independent countries, provided their support in various forms. As a result of the conference, the participants formed the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO), which would play a key role in mobilizing international solidarity for various struggles against colonialism and imperialism in the region. A series of other meetings and conferences were organized in Guinea (1960), Tanganyika (1963), Ghana (1965), which among other things discussed the need to include Latin American countries. In the last conference in Ghana it was decided that the following meeting would take place in Havana, Cuba.

The Tricontinental Conference took place in January 1966. The choice of Cuba as the host affirmed the image of the Conference as a platform of anti-imperialist movements, rather than “progressive states.” Leaders of national liberation movements like Amilcar Cabral of the PAICG in Guinea-Bissau, Luis Lima from Guatemala, and Nguyen Van Tien of the NLF in Vietnam, came to the conference and openly asked for political and military support. The resolution of the conference was much more ideological than its predecessors with an ultimate objective of “total liberation” which includes support for national liberation movements, intensification of military and political struggles in the three continents, support for the Cuban revolution, and support for nuclear disarmament. A new political initiative was launched at the conference: the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL).

The Bandung conference also generated a series of new initiatives in the field of arts and culture. In September 1956 the first Congress of Black Writers and Artists was convened in Paris to address issues of colonialism, slavery and Negritude. In February 1958 the Asian-African Women’s Conference took place in Colombo, Srilanka, attended by representatives of the Colombo Powers and several African countries. In October 1958 the first Asian-African Writers Conference was convened in Tashkent which among other things established the Association of Asian-African Writers. The association presented a literary award every year, and among the recipients were prominent writers such as Alex La Guma, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ghassan Kanafani, Chinua Achebe, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Mahmoud Darwish. The Asian-African Film Festival was also considered an important event and considered to be the intellectual predecessor of the “Third Cinema” movement. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a number of conferences and meetings for particular sectors, from youth and Islamic organizations to journalists and ophthalmologists were organized in the Asian-African framework with varied levels of success.

 The national-popular regimes

The relationship between the Asian-African Conference, the “progressive states,” and the popular movements was reciprocal rather than causal. The conference allowed state leaders to pursue a more independent political line and identity, which in turn encouraged them to take drastic actions against colonialism and imperialism. This was welcomed by popular and progressive movements in each country who later pursued an even more radical agenda and in turn affected their respective countries. In some cases, like in Egypt and Indonesia, the popular movements played a key role in defining the country’s political direction. The notion of the popular is very significant in post-colonial state formation due to the absence of clear-cut class politics.

In Indonesia after independence, like in many other post-colonial societies, there was no singular political force that had full control over state power. In some cases the state was even not strong enough to impose its rule on the whole population. Liberal democracy in the first half of the 1950s allowed political parties took turns to run the government in the early years, from the socialist left to the religious nationalists. A few months after the Asian-African Conference, Indonesia had its first national and democratic elections. The result of the election once again reflected the balance of power between nationalists, Islamic groups and the left. Meanwhile the consolidation of state power in the archipelago was challenged by centrifugal forces in the provinces who received support from the former colonial ruler. This is when Sukarno called for a new round of struggle against neo-colonialism and imperialism.

In 1959 Sukarno abandoned parliamentary democracy and installed what he called “Guided Democracy” in its place. He aimed to unite the nationalist, Islamic, and communist parties under the banner of Nasakom (Nasionalisme-Agama-Komunisme or Nationalism-Religion-Communism). Together these forces would be the spearhead of a national-popular front against neo-colonialism and imperialis. “National” in the sense that it transcended class differences within the nation, and “popular” in the sense that the interest of the popular classes were to become national interest. In the early 1960s the popular element of the front became even more prominent. In 1960 the government passed the Basic Agrarian Law which transformed the agrarian relations in both social and spatial terms and in a radical manner. Peasant unions and the rural poor responded to the introduction of the law with the so-called “unilateral actions” or land occupations, particularly in areas where land concentration was very high. At the same time the wave of nationalization entered a new stage by targeting British and United States assets.

Sukarno played both a symbolic and functional role in forging an anti-imperialist front which is composed of progressive states and popular movements. He coined the term “new emerging forces” or NEFOS to describe the new political formations, governments and movements, who wanted to build a new global order, as opposed to the “old established forces” or OLDEFOS whose constituents were not only the former colonial powers but also the United States and the conservative elite in post-colonial societies. But unlike the Pan-Asian and Pan-African movements that were also popular at that time, Sukarno’s internationalism also embraced European and American progressive and popular movements. In 1964 Indonesia hosted the first and only Games of the New Emerging Forces or GANEFO to counter the Olympic Games which Sukarno considered to have been under imperialist control. Apart from Asian and African countries the Games also invited representatives from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Netherlands and Belgium. In the same spirit Sukarno wanted to organize the Conference of the New Emerging Forces in 1965 with full support from China, North Korea and North Vietnam.

This was the background in which the plan for the second Asian-African Conference was conceived. Indonesia hosted a series of meetings involving ministers and high-rank state officials of participating countries which defined three basic principles of the struggle against colonialism and imperialism, namely political sovereignty, economic self-reliance, and cultural identity. These principles later entered Sukarno’s political vocabulary as Trisakti or the Three Principles (sakti is a Sanskrit word that means “power” which enables creation and change). However, the rapid growth of the national-popular coalition was violently abrupted by the events on October 1, 1965, when six Indonesian army generals were abducted from their homes and killed by a group of dissident military officers. The remaining army leadership accused the Communist Party of Indonesia as the mastermind (dalang) of the killings and mobilized a mass extermination campaign in retaliation. Hundreds of thousands members and sympathizers of the Communist Party were killed, arrested, and imprisoned. Under the leadership of General Suharto the army went further and organized a “creeping coup” against Sukarno.

It is important to notice that similar events took place in different parts of the world where radical nationalists, socialists, and national-popular forces were in power. In April 1964 João Goulart, the president of Brazil who had close connections to center-left political groups, was deposed by a military coup. In October, a few days after the events in Jakarta, the leftist Morrocan and founder of the Tricontinental Conference, Mehdi Ben Barka, was abducted in Paris. In February 1966 Emmanuel Kotoka ousted Kwame Nkrumah and installed military rule in Ghana. In September 1973 the United States supported General Pinochet to topple the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. The code for the operation in Chile was “Operation Djakarta.” The political changes in Indonesia also affected the route of the Asian-African movement. It can be said that after 1965 the “Bandung spirit” took a two-track development.

The first track emerged in the early 1960s in the form of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was initiated by India, Pakistan, and Yugoslavia. The movement emphasized political neutrality in the Cold War global order. Suharto was a strong supporter of the movement because it provided a convenient exit to the legacies of Sukarno’s progressive internationalism. The movement also received support from authoritarian leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America, who probably thought of the movement as a political shield to protect their autonomy from both sides of the Cold War divide. Progressive and radical proposals were removed from the agenda and the leaders formed the G-77, or the group of less developed countries, which later became the abstract and a-political “South.” The second track meanwhile continued radical anti-imperialist politics. Composed mainly of radical popular movements and national liberation movements, the second track had no singular representative. In fact the movements were very diverse in orientation and method. In Indonesia the two track were represented by two opposing political figures, Sukarno and Suharto. While Sukarno is known for his central role in the Asian-African movement, Suharto is acknowledged as an important figure in the Non-Aligned Movement.

It is perhaps convenient to explain the “conservative turn” in the Asian-African movement through the lens of “imperialist subversion.” There is no doubt that the United States played a key role in the attack on national-popular forces and the rise of military regimes in many Asian and African countries. However, to understand the political changes simply as a product of “imperialist subversion” is rather problematic because the real source of the problem lies in the nature of the nation-state itself.

The nation, itself a product of modern political struggle, has been in constant tension with the different communities and collectivities in colonial societies. The rise of modern nation in the colonies almost always involved marginalization and also discrimination of particular sections of the society, like women and children, ethnic and religious minorities, the rural poor and other disadvantaged groups. National unity is a call for these groups to give up their particular demands and aspirations in the interest of society as a whole. The state, on the other hand, is even more problematic. The national-popular coalition might have managed to assert progressive or even radical agenda into the state, but it has failed to transform the former colonial state into a more inclusive and democratic political institution. In Indonesia after 1965 the state in fact restored colonial exploitative relations in different sectors which can be read as the destruction of the nation as a radical political project.

Asia-Africa today: towards a new Bandung?

Ideas and proposals for the creation of an alternative regionalism that would be able to revive the “Bandung spirit” have been circulating long before the commemoration of the Bandung Conference. The driving force of this new enthusiasm was the grievances and anxieties over the prolonged economic crises, increasing social injustice, environmental degradation, and armed conflicts. The failure of international bodies to deal with issues such as climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking, and global labor arbitrage, stimulate discussions about the need for new internationalism, new international mechanisms and actions. Memory of Bandung has been prominent in the discussions, with state leaders, public intellectuals, and activists alike making constant reference to the political and intellectual legacies of the conference. This explains that “anti-colonial” rhetoric of authoritarian leaders like Suharto and Mahathir, particularly in instances when the relationships between their countries and the Empire are in trouble.

Another impetus to the revival of the Bandung spirit was the emergence of new progressive leaders and governments, such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Their sudden rise to power was a sign that alternatives to the existing social order is not only desirable but also possible. It gave political movements and activists the confidence and space to come up with more radical ideas and proposals for change even in established political systems like the United States and Britain. Activist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn may have nothing to do with the rise of progressive Latin American governments, but the fact that they gained substantial support from the general population in their respective countries, or in that case, Jokowi in Indonesia, are part of the same global trend. It is not so much about progressive leaders than it is about angry people and progressive movements.

However, these movements are not products of the Bandung Conference. In fact, if we examine the Final Communique closely it is clear that none of the original objectives has been achieved. Technical assistance for development projects did not come from Asian or African countries, but from the United States, Soviet Union and other European countries. Reform of the international monetary architecture never took place despite the different proposals that individual countries and leaders put forward. Third World countries instead became even more dependent on international financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF during the 1970s and 1980s. In the last two decades Asian countries have been involved in a race to the financial regulatory bottom, leaving the international financial elite to control their economies. Attempts to control and regulate prices of energy was established by OPEC which had a completely different trajectory from the Bandung Conference. Instead of mutual-benefit cooperation, today we witness competition through the imposition of low wages to create cheap labour, relaxation of investment laws, and the establishment of Export Processing Zones (EPZs).

Asia and Africa have also been major victims in the global land grab. Millions of hectares of land, including ancestral lands, have changed ownership from local communities to large corporations, involving Indian and Chinese investment. One quarter of the deals took place in Indonesia and Malaysia, mostly for palm oil and biofuel production, in line with the general trend of the global South to become future sources of energy. This trend has created serious environmental problems and also inequality between and within countries. Significant parts of China and India, for example, have become new centers of the global capitalist economy, while other parts are still living in poverty. The division is not so much between countries as it is between the “first world” and “third world” enclaves regardless of the administrative borders. And there is not much that the governments of Asian and African countries have done to change this. In fact, the governments have played a key role in the expansion of capital in the region by providing cheap labour and favourable investment laws.

In other words, the state has been part of the problem than the solution when it comes to the question of reviving the “Bandung spirit.” What should be done today is to trace the forgotten trajectory of the social movements in the history of the Asian-African Conference and its legacies. It is important to seriously understand the dynamics of that history and to avoid what the historian Edward Thompson called “the condescencion of posterity,” as it is from these stories where new imaginations of the future will emerge.


[1] The three principles were formulated during the Asian-African Ministerial Meeting in Jakarta, April 1964. It was Sukarno who coined the term “Trisakti” to denote the principles.

The edited version of this article was published in Journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies  Volume 17, 2016 – Issue 1