Burma, Bandung and the Subaltern


Though I wasn’t able to go to the Asia-Africa Conference Museum (otherwise known as the Bandung Conference) my partner Tim made it and took pictures for me. Our trip to Indonesia inspired loads of conversation topics, not the least of which was the politics of Indonesia and the greater effects on Southeast Asia as a whole. Why was this conference, held in Bandung in 1955, so important? Well, it was the meeting that would later inspire the Non-Aligned Movement, the grouping of developing countries which stood against the major power blocs of the US, Western Europe and Russia. Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, Nkrumah (and later Tito and Castro) – all of them were the first or second presidents of their countries, trying to lead their people to a better more sustainable way of life that did not rely on former colonizers or more powerful countries.

In Burma (as it was referred to at the time), U Nu was the president and the country was on thin ice. General Aung San was killed a few years before and the country’s future was still uncertain. How would U Nu respond to the national population which included such a range of ethnicities, languages and cultures? Part of the opportunity the Asia-Africa Conference offered was valuable experience in some of these particular issues. Leaders to come together and show solidarity AND act as a force of opinion to stand against what were the former colonial powers.

It reminded me of the Subaltern and Postcolonial theory which artists so often refer to in Southeast Asia. The existence of the small museum of the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung culminated these theories in an actively political way. The voices of the Subaltern, responding to the dominance of the West. Now knowing how active the West (especially the US) has been in trying to destroy the self-governed countries which participated ever since makes me think that we don’t want democracy at all. That we are not the shining light of universal values. We are an imposition on those who want to create real change on their own terms.

Burma’s last free election was held in 1960. In 1961, General Ne Win took power and forced the country into his version of Socialism. Over the next 30 years, countless numbers were killed, many starved and Burma became one of the most impoverished countries in the world. In 1990, free elections were held, Aung San Su Kyi won, and the military government denied the win. In 1997, Burma became a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and over the next 10 years would deal with more protests, ethnic violence, China’s strong arm controlling its natural resources, and natural disasters. It was not until just 2 years ago, in 2010, that Burma (now Myanmar) revisits the idea of democracy. They’re not quite there yet, but if they continue with interests of the people instead of the big businesses of Europe, the US and China, they will achieve some of the motives which the Bandung Conference sought to address all those decades ago.


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