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COLOURED PEOPLE'S GALA
- A new strategic partnership between Asia and Africa

Scepticism about this weekend's replay of the Bandung conference recalls the Chinese slogan, 'Due to Mao Zedong, we could stand up. Thanks to Deng Xiaoping, we are getting rich.' But for the awakening represented by the first Afro-Asian gathering, there might have been no substance today for the World Trade Organization's pacts and parleys. It's a good thing that nature's fury did not prevent Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from celebrating the 50th anniversary of an epochal event. Food and peace are as compelling concerns for Asians and Africans in 2005 as they were in 1955.

Like the conference on Indonesia that Jawaharlal Nehru organized, Bandung I also had to overcome obstruction. Ever anxious to oblige the Americans, Britain's prime minister, Anthony Eden, infuriated Nehru by suggesting that Washington would take a dim view of China's inclusion. Nearer home, Pakistan echoed the objection. For their part, the British tried to stop the Gold Coast ' soon to become independent Ghana ' from attending.

Arguments over whether Nehru did right to promote Zhou Enlai will persist for ever. The extent of opposition was revealed when Zhou narrowly escaped death. In those balmy days of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai, Nehru sent Air-India's Princess of Kashmir to convey Zhou and his party to Jakarta, as China did not have an airline. Three hours after refuelling in Hongkong, the plane exploded over the ocean, killing all 11 passengers. Alarmed questions by Jakarta's air control, which picked up distress signals, elicited the fact that Zhou himself was not on board: he had ' so it was claimed ' been hospitalized with appendicitis. He flew later to Rangoon, and took a KLM flight to Singapore for secret talks with the British high commissioner, Malcolm MacDonald.

All this is well recorded. Yet, astonishingly, Indira Gandhi's latest biographer, Katherine Frank, makes Nehru, his daughter and B.K. Nehru fly to Rangoon. 'Here they met up with Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and Zhou Enlai.' The next day Nehru and Indira, Nasser and Zhou Enlai flew on to Bandung together.' That cosy group flight just didn't happen because Zhou's aides say he had got wind of a plot ' by the Americans or the Kuomintang or both ' to bump him off.

Suspicions persisted. The Central Intelligence Agency man New Delhi expelled in the Fifties reportedly gave the KMT the bomb mechanism that blew up the Princess of Kashmir. A CIA deputy director, General Lucian Truscott, is said to have persuaded his boss, Allen Dulles, not to make a second attempt by slipping a slow-acting poison into Zhou's rice at the final Bandung banquet to kill him after returning to China. A third assassination plot involved a police dog named Kelly that was trained to identify Zhou by sniffing his sheets and towels in Bandung. Loaded with explosives, Kelly would have been turned loose on the Chinese premier when he visited Paris. Zhou cancelled the trip.

Yet, death over-shadowed Bandung I. Albert Einstein died in faraway Princeton as it opened. His opposition to any national monopoly of nuclear power, and support for world peace through disarmament, tuned in with the group's commitment to liberating Asia and Africa from the straitjacket of military alliances like the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation. As Sukarno, ever the messianic master of rhetoric, put it, the conference would 'mobilise all the spiritual, all the moral, all the political strength of Asia and Africa on the side of peace'.

Bandung I has been criticized for exalting nationalism and self-sufficiency (import substitution) instead of globalization and free markets. But events must be assessed according to contemporary conditions. The conference's most important outcome was that it was held at all. It proclaimed that the Cold War was not the most gripping international cause. The basic needs of the 73 per cent of the global population that Bandung I represented were more important. Food could not be separated from self-respect.

Contemporary Western accounts derided the conference as a coloured people's gala. They echoed Loy Henderson, an American ambassador to India, who accused Nehru of being 'constitutionally unhappy' unless he was leading a global union of coloured peoples. The charge was relevant only in the sense that the international divide was even more like the Mason-Dixon Line. Whites were rich; the poor were black, brown or yellow. But humanism goes beyond colour, and the white-ruled Central African Federation was invited to demonstrate involvement in people rather than politics. A barbaric South Africa was naturally excluded, but Nehru regretted the Arab pressure that kept out Israel.

Bandung I set the stage for the non-aligned movement to emerge six years later. It projected the concept of Panchsheel which Indonesians adopted as Pancasila. It warned that the poor could not be fobbed off with crumbs from the high table. As a black American writer put it, it reflected 'class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale'. The demand for political self- expression and an equitable share of the earth's resources continued the message of the 1927 International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism in Brussels which Nehru had addressed.

The world has changed since 1955; so have many of its preoccupations. Only 29 governments, 23 Asian and 6 African, were represented at Bandung I; 105 were invited this time, though only 49 had accepted at last count. Of the original stalwarts, only Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia survives. South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, is taking a leading part this time. The Cold War over, Japan and South Korea are also participants.

Some concerns remain the same. Occupied Iraq's resistance compounds the problem of race discrimination and political justice in west Asia. But Afro-Asian sponsors have acquired operational sophistication. It is no accident that Bandung II is being held in the context of global conferences on sustainable development and renewable energy and the G-15 summit in Caracas which demanded alleviation of debts that cripple developing nations. The impoverishment of more than half the world's population offers the single most important reason for civil strife, international tension and the spectre of terrorism.

Hence the need for what the organizers call 'a new strategic partnership' between Asia and Africa. Of course, global institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and WTO, as well as powerful transnational corporations, must address the Afro-Asian plight. But berating the United States of America alone will not achieve much: the third world must enlist the sympathy of George W. Bush and his most fervent neo-conservatives.

As a result, the action is shifting from the central platform to anterooms, from public eloquence to unobtrusive diplomacy. Nepal's beleaguered monarch expects an informal meeting with India's leaders to pour oil on a partnership whose waters should never have been allowed to become so troubled. With dangerously fraught Sino-Japanese relations, one hopes that China's president, Hu Jintao, will respond to Junichiro Koizumi's invitation to meet him on the sidelines in Bandung. The Japanese are also discussing a free trade agreement with Indonesia while China's 200-strong delegation is exploring scope for investing in the host country.

Bangladeshis wish to discuss ways of reducing their trade gap with Indonesia. Egypt leads the thrust for the Afro-Asian strategic partnership, and vigorous lobbying might yet produce a consensus Asian candidate for the post of United Nations secretary-general. South African diplomats, who have developed surprisingly cordial relations with North Korea, are no less ambitiously trying to persuade the latter's representatives to return to mainstream diplomacy.

Not all hopes will fructify. But as Bandung II tries to shape a new world order based not on power politics but humanity, no delegate need share a perhaps over-finicky Nehru's fear in 1955 of inadequate essential facilities. 'People can do without drawing rooms,' he warned, 'but they cannot do without bathrooms and lavatories.' When it was all over, Nehru admitted to Edwina Mountbatten that he doubted whether 'we could have provided the same amenities in Delhi.' The handsome tribute was worthy of the man.

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