Interview with Dr Roeslan Abdulghani, Secretary General, Asia-Africa Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, 1955

The video of the interview is available at:

Transcript: Interview with Roeslan Abdulgani

Former Foreign Minister of Indonesia and Secretary-General of the Bandung Conference

Interview conducted by: Professor Amitav Acharya

April 25, 2002

Preface to Interview with Dr Roselan Abdulghani (Amitav Acharya)

Most students of Asian politics and international relations have heard about the Asia-Africa Conference held in the Indonesian town of Bandung between 18 and 24 April 1955. Attended by 29 nations, the conference discussed cooperation among the nations of Asia and Africa, their social, economic and cultural problems, problems affecting national sovereignty, racialism and colonialism, and the contribution of Asian and African countries to world peace and cooperation.

The Secretary-General of this historic conference was Dr Roselan Abdulghani. At the time of the conference, he was the secretary-general of the Indonesia Foreign Ministry. Later, he became President Sukarno’s Foreign Minister, and the Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the UN.

On April 22, 2004, I had the privilege of interviewing him in Jakarta. Dr Roselan was 88 years old, frail, but in good mind and spirit. Our conversation lasted for an hour. During the interview, I had the opportunity to seek his reflections on several aspects of the conference:

  1. Why did Indonesia organize this conference?
  2. What were the main issues discussed and debated at the conference?
  3. How effective were the procedures adopted at the conference?
  4. What was his impressions of some of the key leaders at the conference, such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Chou En-Lai of China? And
  5. What is the main legacy of the Bandung Conference?

In the interview that follows, Dr Roselan provides clear and insightful answers to these questions. What comes through here is one of the finest diplomatic histories of that time by one of the most distinguished and ablest diplomats the developing world has ever produced.

AA: Tell me why Indonesia decided to organize the Bandung Conference.

RA: Well, as you know, in 1953, 1954, we faced the danger of the Vietnam War spreading to Southeast Asia. We felt that there was a danger. Secondly, we were fighting, at that time, against Dutch colonialism about West Irian. And that was a tough struggle, and we were of the opinion that colonialism was an international problem. So to fight off colonialism, we should also fight on an international level. That means that the Asian-African countries, who were at that time still colonized, should be mobilized. Thirdly, we wanted an economic cooperation between these countries who were not yet technically developed. And lastly, there was President Sukarno’s dream in 1930, 1932, during the colonial period. He said that the benteng of Indonesia, the bullof Indonesia, should cooperate with the lembu mandi of India, with the barong, the dragon of China, with the tiger of Philippines, also with the white elephant of Thailand. And if we all cooperated in fighting against colonialism, then we would win. Therefore, his idea of having a Conference of Asia and Africa was motivated by the situation at the time, but also by the dream he had in 1930.

For the Colombo Conference between the five South Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma and Indonesia), we had the idea that we would like to invite China, and so, this was discussed. Not only China, but also the other countries that were more or less involved in the Cold War. Because we knew that between the Colombo powers at that time, there was the problem of Pakistan and India. Pakistan was a member of a military alliance, while India rejected military alliances – we knew that. When the Bandung Conference was opened, 29 countries were there. So you have endless ranks of the 29 countries.

You have countries who are members of a military alliance, and also countries who are neutral, which means non-aligned. This posed a problem because in one of the resolutions we talked about the right of defence, and it required very tough bargaining to come to a balanced decision, especially in terms of the wording. Later on, the right of self-defence, singly or collectively, was recognized. This had consequences for countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, and other countries who were members of NATO or SEATO. We recognized that they had the right of self-defence collectively, but we would prefer that they had the right of defence individually as well. The verdict on the right defence, singly or collectively, is recognized, but there should be an abstention from the use of military alliances to serve the particular interests of the great powers.

There was a big debate. Nehru, Indonesia, and all the countries who were against the military alliances, said: “Alright, you have the right of self-defence collectively. But you should abstain to use that military alliance for the special interests of big powers.” Pakistan could not say that they were serving the interests of the big power, because Pakistan said “No, if we are a member of SEATO, we are after our own security.” So that was a compromise. And that was one of the delicate problems at the Conference which was solved.

That would also solve the problem of Communism. Because we invited China, and China is Communist. Moreover, China is considered to be an annex of Moscow. In Bandung, there were other opinions, especially from Nehru, but also from Indonesia, and from Zhou Enlai himself. Zhou Enlai said, “Look, we are Communists. I am Communist. But this does not mean that we follow everything that Mao Zedong says.” And that’s how the idea came that Chinese Communism is different from Moscow Communism. So when Sir John Kotelawala presented the idea that there is a new form of colonialism, and the relationship between Moscow and East Europe, we said: “No that is not colonialism, that is up to them.”

Therefore, the meeting about this problem of colonialism, and all its new forms, ended with a compromise. And the compromise was this. We are going say that there was a very antagonistic debate about colonialism in all its forms, because the idea of Sir John Kotelawala was that Communism was colonialism in another form. This was rejected by Zhou Enlai, and also by the other people. No, you cannot say that communism is colonialism. But how could we solve this problem?

We agreed not to mix up the problem, and interfere in the relations between Moscow and the Eastern countries. That was up to them. We don’t want to be mixed up in that. And then, said Zhou Enlai, “If you would like to have colonialism in all its manifestations, then I agree. And he used his hands, like this, showing the Conference. This is colonialism, and its manifestation is in the political field, in the economic field, in the social field, in the ideological field, and so on. But this is manifestation. If you change colonialism in all its manifestations, it is an evil that should be brought to an end. Then I agree.”

So this delicate problem was compromised. Everybody knows that we were treating very delicate problems. That was the success of the Bandung Conference – to eliminate sharp conflicts of ideas, and to come to compromises. This was possible because the rules of procedure made it possible. There are no fixed rules of procedures. It is up to the Chairman to conduct the procedure, the debate, on a very wise way. And that is avoiding floating. How will you come to a decision? By consensus, which is a very interesting problem. I think in Indonesian society, we used four things: discussion (mushawarah), and then we come to mufakat, which means consensus. So if you have two different opinions, you cut off the sharp points of both, and you come to a compromise.

Therefore, the final Communiqué of the Bandung Conference, actually is full of compromises. But without compromises, how can you come to an agreement between twenty-nine countries, which was nearly half of the world, at that time where the United Nations consisted of sixty members. And twenty-nine countries were in Bandung.

AA: Do you think this idea of consensus was Indonesia’s idea? From Indonesian village culture? You also thought this was the most practical way.

RA: We suggested that.

AA: You suggested that? Indonesia suggested?

RA: We know that the other countries, such as the Islamic Arab countries, also agreed that it should come to consensus. Because in the Qu’ranic verse it is said that you should always come to an agreement. Of course you have different opinions, but if you have different opinions, you should try to persuade the other with reasoning, by being very kind, and patient, but also think of the time. That is what the Qu’ran said. You cannot talk for months. So we said: “Of course we should think of the time. And therefore you should come to a consensus because the situation was dangerous at the time. The situation of the Cold War.

The Bandung Conference affected the whole world. From Southeast Asia spreading to the Middle East. That is what I think is the greatest achievement of the Bandung Conference. And the idea that the world is not divided into two blocs. Why should the world be defined by a liberal democracy with capitalism on the one hand, and on the other, an authoritarian Communism with an altruistic ideology. Why should that be the world? No. We said no. There is a Third World.

The idea of a Third World actually came up at the Bandung Conference. The rest is divided into Moscow and Washington. Both had the glory that was Rome, the glory that was Greece, the glory that was Christianity. We, what you call the East, we had the cradle of religions, the cradle of philosophies, the cradles of life – Mesopotamia, the Ganges, the Indus in India, and then you have the Nile. And that is non-Western. So why should we submit to the idea that the world is divided in only these two blocs, and that there is no alternative. You must choose, or you are off the radar. No, we will not choose. We will choose for ourselves. And that is the idea, that we nurtured in the Bandung Conference, and later on it was materialized in the Non-bloc movement.

AA: Can you tell me about the role of China, and especially Prime Minister Zhou Enlai?

RA: It is very interesting, because at first we thought that Zhou Enlai would be a hardliner. Because he was a Communist, and he admitted in his speech that “I am atheist.” We were all frightened, but we didn’t expect his openness. He said: “Why I am an atheist? We, Chinese Communists, respect religion. And we don’t want to have a religion war. And we are not against religion, but religion should be fighting against colonialism. Because religion should be fighting against colonialism, because colonialism is against the religion and against the other communisms. That was revealing of the man. This man is very tolerant. And then he said, “Don’t worry about me. I am an atheist. But that doesn’t mean that I do not recognize, and respect others. In my delegation, there are Muslims. And there were.

This is what we mean by peaceful co-existence. We may differ, but we have a          peaceful co-existence. We will not quarrel over this problem, because we are facing colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and so on. This is what Zhou Enlai revealed to us. This actually was not new, because Nehru also had this idea. But this came from the man we thought was a hardliner. And this was revealing.

In his role, he was very, very cooperative. He listened to the speech of Sir John Kotelawala. And then in the mid-afternoon he stopped and said: “Sir John Kotelawala, are you expecting me to fight against you? No!” John was amazed. “Look, I would like to see your text. I will reply tomorrow. But I am not here to quarrel with you. I am here to come to a peaceful settlement of our ideas.” And that is what the whole conference respected, this attitude of Zhou Enlai.

The next morning he made a very short speech. He said, “ I have listened, and I have disagreed, but I have talked to Sir John Kotelawala about it.” And later on, John Kotelawala said that he did not mean Chinese Communism when he spoke.

A very positive role, and very constructive role.

Another thing was that he was adamant. He did not want to recognize Formosa. He is a man of the One-China policy. And he knows the second fleet of the American army is around there. He said, “No, we cannot accept two Chinas.” That is his only stubborn, if I may use the word, attitude.

AA: There was a compromise on the question of military pacts and also on the question of colonialism. Do you think that compromise, that military pacts collectively or singly is OK, but should not be used for the interests of a superpower. That formula, or that compromise, did it have an impact on SEATO later? That it got the Asian countries to think that military alliances are not good.

RA: Of course, we know what will be the attitude of these two big powers. But we said to them that this is our position, if there is a Cold War problem. Because one of the purposes of the Asian-Africa Conference was to feel the professions of Asia and Africa in the World today. That was one of the purposes. We feel our professions in the Cold War. If there is a problem of Cold War in Korea, in Vietnam, in Berlin, our profession is mediation. We try to mediate. We do not use nuclear weapons. We do not use force. If it comes to colonialism, then we fight against it. If America supports colonialism, we will fight America. And if the Soviet Union supports colonialism in Eastern Europe, then we may fight them. But when it comes to the problem of Cold War, we will mediate. That was clear. These two big powers began to think about it.

AA: How about the question of sovereignty, and the principle of non-interference, non-intervention of states? Was there a lot of discussion?

RA: Oh yes. That was also discussed. We rejected any intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. But of course the big problem is economic, because we were all from the Third World. We urged an oil-policy, because we know that we need countries that have oil in Middle East, and here as well. The idea of having an oil-producing organization, like OPEC, was conceived in the Bandung Conference.

AA: Question about Nehru’s role.

RA: Prime Minister Nehru had a very, very leading role. Not only because he has such great charisma, but he is considered the man who is the forerunner of the freedom movement, in India and so on. He mastered the English language, he mastered politics, and he knew all the tactics and strategies of the Great Britain colonial policy. And that is reflected in his ideas when he is talking about this. So his role is a very leading one. That is what I can say. He is a state senior. Of course, he was always criticized by Mohammad Ali. But that does not make any sense, because we know that they were brothers who fought, so we tried to mediate between them.

The problem of the impact of the Bandung Conference, was the non-Aligned Conference. They had a membership that started at 24, later it was 50, showing the relevance of the Bandung Conference. If you ask me whether the ideas at Bandung are still relevant today, mostly they are. But we should also understand the changes of the world. Not all it is still useful. But the basic things, about peaceful co-existence are still valid. Now the people say that the Cold War is over, but there is new war coming. That is the war between the developed countries and the countries that are underdeveloped. This should be bridged. That is why we addressed the debt problem, the problem of technology. The peaceful co-existence idea, I think, is still relevant today.

What we see today, the problem of Zionism against the Arab, Islamic World, and the Third World. Zionism also has its roots in America. It is different from anti-Semitism. If you ask me how to solve this, I believe that you can still use some of the ideas from Bandung.

AA: Did it have an impact on ASEAN. Later on, when Southeast Asian countries led by Indonesia, decided to have their own regional organization, ASEAN. Did Bandung – the process, the principles – have any impact on Indonesia’s involvement in ASEAN?

RA: I think ASEAN has its history. ASEAN has its contribution to the problem of stability in Southeast Asia. But later on, it becomes too limited. So ASEAN must expand its membership, and therefore you now have APEC., the problem of new regional cooperation. I understand that the original ASEAN members would like to keep the ASEAN idea. But you cannot keep it limited.

AA: But what I was asking you also is that ASEAN also operates on the basis of consensus. And ASEAN is also trying to develop, in the 1950s and 60s, a policy of neutralization of Southeast Asia. Do you that some ideas of Bandung had an impact on Indonesian foreign policy, and in the foreign ministry. And when Indonesia became a member of ASEAN, it was trying to make ASEAN in the same mold as the Bandung principles of consensus.

RA: That is true, but it depends on the cabinet in Indonesia, whether it was intensive enough, or just superficial. So we had times were the cabinet in Indonesia was only superficially doing it. But there are times where we are going to be intensive.

Look at the period of Suharto. Suharto is committed to ASEAN. Because ASEAN, at birth, was to keep peace in this area, and not to be a communist organization. But later on, it could not control the influence of China. But China also changed. In the later period, Suharto went to China. Then you have the Habibie period, but it was too short to say what it was. Then came Gus Dur who tried to intensify ASEAN. And now Megawati, I don’t know. The new foreign Minister talks to me as a senior person, and his staff also. I ask him what he is doing: “You cannot keep ASEAN the way that it was. You have to move on. The world is moving, so you need a larger regional cooperation.

In this respect, we were also very clear with Zhou Enlai. Do not interfere anymore. Do not interfere in other states. That is what we told Zhou Enlai. Because colonialism is not only a monopoly of the West, but also exists in the East. He understood. He later on invited me to go to Ulan Baator, in Outer Mongolia.

AA During the Bandung Conference, Nehru said that if you join a military pact, you degrade yourself. The countries that join military alliances are not very sovereign countries. Is there a sense that if countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Thailand, and Philippines join military alliances with the US, and use the alliance against other countries in Asia, that means they are not acting as sovereign states?

RA: That’s true, which is why we acted to protect the right of self-defence collectively, that you should abstain from the use of collective military arrangements for the specific interest of the people. Of course, this is just a formulation to caution them. Don’t be used by America as a weapon against other countries. You can see from the “Ten Principles of Bandung” that the right of self-defence singly or collectively is recognized. But you should abstain the use of collective military alliances for the specific interest of the big power.

Hinduism and Buddhism are the so called hydraulic civilizations. They are of the rivers, big rivers. The Rhine is also big, but there are no civilizations.

AA: I think it is interesting to see that you are recognized as one of the key players in the development of non-alignment and Afro-Asian cooperation. And I’m very glad that you are still able to participate in many of these functions. It is a real privilege to meet you.

RA: Professor Amitav, this should give us new inspiration and some confidence that Asia can compete with the rest.

AA: That concludes my interview with Dr. Roeslan Abdulgani, who was, in 1955, the Secretary-General of the Bandung Conference. This is in Jakarta at 11:30 am.


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