Restoring the Legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement

By Brandon Do.

File:Konferencija Pokreta nesvrstanih 1961. godine.jpg
The first Non-Aligned Movement conference in Belgrade in 1961

One of the central ideas behind Western philosophy is that history doesn’t matter. Asian Americans are taught that their history begins upon their arrival to America rather than from their roots in Asia which stretch back over a millennia. They are ingrained with the belief that their countries are full of morally corrupt and backwards people and thus separated from models of integrity and courage.

Western philosophy is wrong. Our history makes us who we are, and we have suffered as a result of being detached from it. The erasure of history, and this distance from our civilization has also left us without a basis on how to relate to one another in America. In our cities plagued with segregation, poverty, child hunger, and increasing violence, it is clear that the Western worldview has produced the chaos and moral degradation that we see today.

There is something deep in the value system of the world’s yellow, black and brown majority that we need in order to save ourselves from self-destruction. We can learn these values by studying the anti-colonial and the Non-Aligned movement and to fulfill our responsibility to uncover this lost legacy so that we can build the foundations of a new society and a new world.

The Non-Aligned Movement, sparked by the Bandung Conference in 1955, was a coalition of Asian and African nations who prioritized peaceful coexistence and mutual cooperation. In spite of their cultural and political differences, the project was intended for darker nations to solve their problems and build their collective futures without seeking assistance from the West. Some countries were capitalist, some were communist, but foremost, they embraced a new possibility in refusing to let their relationships with one another be mediated through the West. President Sukarno of Indonesia said:

We are of many different nations, we are of many different social backgrounds and cultural patterns. Our ways of life are different. Our national characters, or colours or motifs – call it what you will – are different. Our racial stock is different, and even the colour of our skin is different. But what does that matter? Mankind is united or divided by considerations other than these. Conflict comes not from variety of skins, nor from variety of religion, but from variety of desire.

But what harm is in diversity, when there is unity in desire? This Conference is not to oppose each other, it is a conference of brotherhood… it is a body of enlightened, tolerant opinion which seeks to impress on the world that all men and all countries have their place under the sun – to impress on the world that it is possible to live together, meet together, speak to each other, without losing one’s individual identity; and yet to contribute to the general understanding of matters of common concern, and to develop a true consciousness of the interdependence of men and nations for their well-being and survival on earth.

An example of this solidarity can be found in the anti-colonial movement of Indochina which was Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, exemplified through the positions taken by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. To give a brief historical context, the country of Cambodia shares its eastern border with the country of Vietnam and its northern border with Laos. It is a civilization with ancient roots dating back thousands of years. Although there is a difference in culture, Cambodia shares deep cultural ties with all of its neighbors. Shaped through centuries of Buddhism and Hinduism, the ideals of peace, harmony, and tolerance are deeply embedded in the hearts of the Cambodian people.

Toward the end of the 19th century, France began to extend its claws over the region and named it Indochina, which included Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After colonizing Vietnam in 1862, they took control of Cambodia and established the “French Protectorate of Cambodia”. What did this mean? It meant that the French government would keep Cambodia “safe” from the threat of Vietnamese “invasion”. France was granted permission to do this by the King of Cambodia at the time who was, to say the least, in a hard place, as he was the leader of a kingdom that was located in between the two other large kingdoms of Vietnam and Thailand. The French exploited this opportunity to divide and conquer the people of the region, exacerbating tensions between ethnic groups and inciting hatred between them. 

The founding of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1941 by Ho Chi Minh sought to unite the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in their common cause to defeat French colonialism. This threatened the core of French domination. So, as a strategy to reconquer the peoples of these nations, they continued to exacerbate tensions between them. They even went as far as distributing leaflets which chastised Cambodians for joining the Viet Minh, saying that by fighting side by side with Vietnamese people against the French they had joined the ranks of their “traditional enemies”. They discouraged unity between the working class of the two people, who often shared the same conditions as laborers on the same rubber plantations. They claimed to be the saviors of Cambodians. Furthermore, the French placed leaders into power who they thought would be best to fulfill the interests of their greed. 

Also, in 1941, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was chosen by the French to be the new King of Cambodia and groomed to be another Asian leader who would turn against his people to do the work of the West. Throughout his political career during the anti-colonial movement, he, however, stood defiant against the West.

In 1953, he was threatened by John Foster Dulles, the U.S. secretary of state, who said that Sihanouk would lose his crown if he did now allow France to use Cambodia as a military base against Vietnam. “Without the help of the French army, your country would quickly be conquered by the reds and your independence would disappear,” Dulles said. Sihanouk however stood strong and rejected this offer. 

On one occasion, when he was invited to the Philippines by the then U.S. backed government, he received a presidential welcome with a decadent parade — greeted by celebrities, high ranking members of the government, and movie stars. He learned that this was a plot organized by the C.I.A. to coerce him to get Cambodia to join SEATO, a coalition of nations brought together by the West to destroy the blossoming liberation movements of South and Southeast Asia. The next morning, he gave a speech declaring Cambodia’s position as a non-aligned country, saying that Cambodia wanted no part of SEATO.

He [John Foster Dulles] had exhausted every argument to persuade me to place Cambodia under the protection of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization. I refused, because such an arrangement was contrary to the pledge of neutrality accepted by Cambodia at the 1954 Geneva Conference, and which I was to reaffirm at the Bandung Conference in April 1955”. I considered SEATO an aggressive military alliance directed against neighbors whose ideology I did not share but with whom Cambodia had no quarrel.. Cambodia wanted no part of SEATO. We would look after ourselves as neutrals and Buddhists.

To the creators of SEATO, the lives of Asian people were expendable, and only valuable to them insofar as they were willing to turn against other dark people. A U.S. senator at the time who echoed the Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger doctrine said, “We pay them for killing each other while we reduce our own forces”. This in fact happened, when the Western backed military of Pakistan attempted to defeat the Bangladesh liberation war, which took place during the same time as the Vietnam War. The belt of Asian countries spanning from Southeast to South Asia was viewed by the imperialists as a single chessboard to defeat the rise of the colonized peoples against their former slave master. So, what affected one country, inevitably affected another, and a defeat of imperialism in one, led to retreat of imperialist forces in another country.

Prince Sihanouk refused to allow the West to dictate the Cambodian people’s relationship to the Vietnamese people. In fact, he threw his support to the Cambodian communist movement which stood in solidarity with the Vietnamese freedom fighters in their common struggle by supplying them with arms. During the height of the Vietnam War, he gave them permission to build the Ho Chi Minh trail through Cambodia which ultimately led to the defeat of the U.S. military. There were many attempts to assassinate him. The West even cut off economic aid to Cambodia, but he stood strong in solidarity with the anti-colonial movement of Asia.

He not only defended other Asians, but he looked to the best of their traditions for inspiration. Sihanouk once said after the death of Ho Chi Minh:

I had deeply admired Uncle Ho. He belonged not only to Vietnam, but to Indo-China, to Asia, and even to the world, for he stood for the rights of oppressed people everywhere; in the former colonies, and for the blacks of the United States as well. For me, an Asian, he was above all, a fellow Asian.

Most importantly he stood for solidarity between the two peoples of Vietnam and Cambodia and Pan Asia, putting the freedom of the masses over individual gain. He spoke of the shared history between Cambodia and India.

This necessity to assert Asia’s independence not only economically, but asserting their right to think for themselves, free from the lens of imperialism was exemplified by India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who threw her support to the liberation struggle of Bangladesh. In a Non-Aligned conference she addressed cultural imperialism: 

In spite of political sovereignty, most of us who have emerged from a colonial or semi-colonial past continue to have a rather unequal cultural and economic relationship with our respective former overlords. They often remain the source of industrial equipment and technological guidance. The European language we speak itself becomes a conditioning element. Inadequacy of indigenous educational materials made us dependent on the books of these dominant countries, especially at the university stage. We imbibe their prejudices. Even our image of ourselves, not to speak of the view of other countries, tends to conform to theirs. The self-deprecation and inferiority complex of some people of former colonies makes them easy prey to infiltration through forms of academic colonialism. This also contributes to the brain drain.

The solidarity built in the early days of the anti-colonial movement led to the defeat of the U.S. military and their puppet regimes in 1975. U.S. media outlets in Vietnam distributed newspapers saying that the communists would kill everyone who opposed their government. Sanctions imposed on the country of Vietnam by the West as punishment for their defiance crippled the economy and left the country among the poorest in the world. Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970 and genocidal regimes would take his place in the decade after. 

The mass migration of people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to America began. The United States used it as an opportunity to once again restore their image as moral superiors and to save Asians against the other morally corrupt Asians. Operation Babylift was an initiative that carried this motive, where the same soldiers who bombed Vietnamese children were pictured holding Vietnamese orphans to transport them into planes that would get them safely to America. The fact is left out that they were the ones who created these orphans. According to Asian American Studies departments across the United States, this is where our history begins — only once we are saved by the West. Since our history begins when we are saved by the oppressor, does that not also mean that we are exempt of our responsibility to stand up to them? Is this not a way that Asian Americans reject their civilizations and become tools for U.S. hegemony?

Operation Babylift: Evacuating Children Orphaned by the Vi… | Flickr
Operation Babylift

Today, America is once again attempting to restore its image as the moral authority of the world by portraying themselves as allies to the Asian cause although they have hypocritically spent over $700,000,000,000 on military weapons which they plan to use against Asian countries. 

So called Anti-War advocates in the United States have demanded an end to Sinophobia and anti-communist war rhetoric. Many Asian American activists are attempting to deal with what they perceive to be the problem of violence against Asian Americans when they have yet to acknowledge the growing poverty in America across racial lines and the violence that is pervasive across the country. But what Asians face is not an issue unto itself. Those who have portrayed Asian Americans solely as victims instead of summoning the bravery to seek truth, care more about being approved by the ruling class to secure their place in American society. What they fail to understand, or what they willingly ignore, is that we cannot truly defend Asian people in the U.S. or abroad until we take responsibility for the future of America the way our ancestors took responsibility for the freedom of humanity. By remaining uncritical of the anti-Asian hate movement, they have identified themselves as potential obedient recipients of foundation money from the ruling class.

Our responsibility is to listen to the people who Martin Luther King said belong to the “Other America”, the most condemned members of our society, who we are warned are a threat to our democracy. We must listen to their silenced voices and learn from them things we might not have known about ourselves and what we share in common. King says in his speech against the Vietnam War, “A Time to Break Silence”:

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

King asserts that to transform America, we must undergo a revolution of values. He says:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. 

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.

Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco June 30 1964 | Flickr
Martin Luther King Jr.

There is a vast and beautiful world beyond us, waiting for us to join hands with the rising people of the East. By learning from the heroic examples of the anti-colonial movement, we can develop the criteria to call into question, Whose interests does it serve when people who share a common situation humiliate, degrade and murder one another? Upon studying the Non-Aligned Movement and the Black Freedom Movement, we can determine who our true enemies are, rather than allowing our enemies to determine them for us. 

We Americans, all have a history to claim, to be proud of, and a responsibility to inherit from that history. The traditions of Asia and the Black America teach us how to not just get along, but how we can unite on the basis of working towards moral development and social uplift. We bear on our shoulders the unfulfilled dreams of our ancestors, and the struggle for truth is intertwined with the fulfillment of this dream. There may be differences between us but as long as we have the “desire”, as President Sukarno said, “to live as brothers” instead of enemies then we can choose civilization over imperialism, and we can begin to build our new tomorrow.

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