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Diplomacy As Theatre: Staging the Bandung Conference of 1955*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 July 2013

Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London, UK Email:


As a significant ‘moment’ in twentieth-century international diplomacy, the rise of post-colonial Afro-Asia at the Bandung Conference of 1955 is replete with symbolic meanings. This paper proposes a conceptual approach to understanding the symbolic dimension of international diplomacy, and does so by ruminating on the newly unearthed Indonesian material on the Bandung Conference. To this end, ‘diplomacy as theatre’ is introduced as an interpretive framework to re-cast the conference as a theatrical performance, in which actors performed on the stage to audiences. Focusing on the city of Bandung, this paper reconstructs some examples of the ‘performative’ dimensions of international diplomacy, and elaborates on the notion of ‘staging’ the city and the role played by the people of Bandung, including the significance of conference venues, as well as the impromptu creation of a ritual citation that contributed to an iconic ‘performative act’ during the conference. Sukarno, Nehru, Zhou Enlai and Nasser all understood the importance as performers in their role as new international statesmen, representing the esprit de corps of the newly emergent post-colonial world. In deconstructing the symbolic, it will become evident that the role played by Indonesia significantly influenced the underlying script of the diplomatic theatre which unfolded at Bandung.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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I would like to express my gratitude to the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore for hosting me, to the ISEAS Library in Singapore, and to the British Academy Research Development Award for the generous financial support to launch this new research project. Many helpful comments were received at research seminars given in Singapore, Yogyakarta, Hong Kong, Zurich, Cambridge, and London. Last but not least, special thanks are due to Sunil Amrith.


1 Official invitations were accepted by Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, Ceylon, China (People's Republic), Egypt, Ethiopia, the Gold Coast, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Yemen.

2 See, for example, the official Indonesian celebrations surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference in 2005, Department of Foreign Affairs, Asia Africa: Towards the First Century, Department of Foreign Affairs, Jakarta, 2005.

3 For discussions on inviting the People's Republic of China, consult Abdulgani, Roeslan, The Bandung Connection: The Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung in 1955, Gunung Agung, Singapore, 1981, chapter 5Google Scholar.

4 LIFE, 2 May 1955, pp. 29–37.

5 Romulo, Carlos P., The Meaning of Bandung, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1956, p. 53Google Scholar.

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8 See Tan, Seng and Acharya, Amitav, (eds), Bandung Revisited: The Legacy of the 1955 Asian-African Conference for International Order, NUS Press, Singapore, 2008, p. 3Google Scholar.

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23 Romulo, Bandung, p. 35.

24 Postlewait, Thomas, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009), pp. 248249Google Scholar.

25 Ibid., p. 252.

26 Thanks to Ringmar, Erik for sharing an earlier version of his ‘Performing International Systems: Two East-Asian Alternatives to the Westphalian Order’, International Organization, 66: 2 (Winter 2012): 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the general theoretical level, I find Goffman, Erving's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Penguin, New York, 1990Google Scholar, Clifford Geertz's oeuvre on symbolic anthropology, and Jeffrey C. Alexander's work in cultural sociology highly instructive. See Alexander, Jeffrey C., Giesen, Bernhard, and Mast, Jason L. (eds), Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics and Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and, more recently, Alexander, Jeffrey C.'s The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010CrossRefGoogle Scholar. My thanks are due to Jeffrey Alexander for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

27 The idea of ‘international society’ is expounded by the English School of International Relations, the most notable work being by Hedley Bull and Adam Watson in their edited volume, The Expansion of International Society, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984.

28 Shimazu, Naoko, ‘Places in Diplomacy’, Political Geography 31:6 (2012): 335336CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 I thank Paul Rae for insightful conceptual discussions on theatre and performance. For his interest in political performance, consult his ‘Wayang Studies?’ (2011), in Harding, James and Rosenthal, Cindy (eds), The Rise of Performance Studies: Rethinking Richard Schechner's Broad Spectrum Approach, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, pp. 6784Google Scholar. Matthew Cohen's expertise on the Indonesian wayang theatrical tradition helped me greatly to appreciate its importance in the everyday life.

30 Penders, C. L. M. (ed.), Milestones on My Journey: The Memoirs of Ali Sastroamijoyo, Indonesian Patriot and Political Leader, University of Queensland Press, Queensland, 1979, p. 283Google Scholar.

31 Abdulgani, Bandung Connection, p. 41.

32 Pikiran rakjat, 12 April 1955. Pikiran rakjat is a local Bandung broadsheet, offering a national coverage, with its principal distribution in West Java. It is known as the worker's newspaper. For an interesting study of the Indonesian press, consult Daniel Dhakidae, ‘The state, the rise of capital and the fall of political journalism: Political economy of Indonesian news industry,’ unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1991.

33 Abdulgani, Bandung Connection, pp. 44–47.

34 On architecture in colonial Indonesia, Nas, Peter J. M. (ed.), The Past in the Present: Architecture in Indonesia, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2006Google Scholar; Helen Jessup, ‘Netherlands architecture in Indonesia, 1900–1924’, unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 1988.

35 BERITA Konferensi Asia Afrika, p. 91. One of the few writings in English on the city of Bandung can be found in Chapter 1 of Smail, John R. W.'s Bandung in the Early Revolution, 1945–1946: A Study in the Social History of the Indonesian Revolution, Modern Indonesia Project, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1964Google Scholar.

36 Federspiel, Howard M., Islam and Ideology in the Emerging Indonesian State: The Persatuan Islam (PERSIS), 1923 to 1957, Brill, Leiden, 2001, pp. 200201, 235, 237Google Scholar. My thanks are due to Chiara Formichi for helpful discussions on Indonesian political history.

37 Pikiran rakjat, 16 April 1955.

38 Ibid., 12 April 1955.

39 Ibid., 2 April 1955.

42 Star Weekly, no. 486, 23 April 1955.

43 Ibid., 18 April 1955.

44 BERITA, pp. 25–26.

45 Star Weekly, no. 486, 23 April 1955.

46 According to the visual materials shown by Jürgen Dinkel at ‘The Cold War and the Postcolonial Moment: Prehistory, Aims and Achievements of the Non-Aligned Movement 50 Years after Belgrade’, held jointly at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) and the University of Zurich, 3–4 June 2011.

47 Pikiran rakjat, 9 April 1955; Indonesian Observer, 15 April 1955.

48 Indonesian Observer, 15 April 1955.

49 Abdulgani, Bandung Connection, p. 68.

50 Pikiran rakjat, 10 April 1955.

51 See the pamphlet, ‘Museum of the Asian-African Conference’, Directorate of Public Diplomacy, Department of Foreign Affairs, Jakarta, 2007.

52 van Dullemen, C. J., Tropical Modernity: Life and Work of C. P. Wolff Schoemaker, SUN, Amsterdam, 2010, p. 44Google Scholar.

53 Pikiran rakjat, 12 April 1955.

54 Goffman, Presentation, p. 26.

55 Star Weekly, no. 486, 23 April 1955; Wanita, no. 10, year 7, 20 May 1955; Lukisan Dunia, no. 17, year 3, 28 April 1955.

56 Lukisan Dunia, no. 17, year 3, 28 April 1955.

57 Pikiran rakjat, 19 April 1955.

58 Star Weekly, no. 486, 23 April 1955.

60 Buku Peringatan Konperensi Asia-Afrika, Inhua, Jakarta, 1955, p. 30.

61 For works on the significance of dress in political and diplomatic events, consult Allman, Jean (ed.), Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2006Google Scholar; Edwards, Louise and Roces, Mina (eds), Politics of Dress in Asia and the Americas, Sussex Academic Press, Lewis, 2008Google Scholar.

62 Smail, Bandung, p. 7. In this paper, I have followed the convention followed by Mackie, Jamie in his edited volume, The Chinese in Indonesia, Thomas Nelson Ltd., Melbourne, 1976, p. ixGoogle Scholar, and simply used ‘the Chinese’ qualified with ‘in Indonesia’, or ‘local Chinese’, etc., to distinguish between the Chinese from the People's Republic of China and the Chinese populations in Indonesia.

63 On the Sino-Indonesian Dual Nationality Treaty, see Mozingo, David, Chinese Policy toward Indonesia 1949–1967, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1976, pp. 114120Google Scholar.

64 Star Weekly, no. 486, 23 April 1955. For a recent study of Nehru at Bandung, consult Singh, ‘From Delhi to Bandung’, pp. 51–64.

65 According to Smail, ‘merdeka’ was heard in the streets of Bandung in September 1945 in the immediate aftermath of the proclamation of independence by the Republic of Indonesia, together with other revolutionary symbols such as the Dwi-warna (the red and white flag of Indonesia). Smail, Bandung, pp. 49–50.

66 Penders, Milestones, p. 290.

67 Wanita, no. 9, year 7, 5 May 1955.

68 Minggu Pagi, no. 5, year 8, 1 May 1955.

69 ‘Nasser on Social Justice,’ From Amembassy (Cairo) to the Department of State, 1 June 1955, RG59, Central Decimal Files, 1955–1959, Box 3681, National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), College Park, Maryland, USA; see also, ‘Domestic Scene Characterized by Indecision and Inactivity,’ Amembassy (Cairo) to Department of State, 7 October 1955, RG 59, Central Decimal Files, 1955–1959, Box 3681, NARA.

70 Braddick, Michael J. (ed.), The Politics of Gesture: Historical Perspectives, Past and Present, London, 2009, p. 10Google Scholar.

71 Roosen, William, ‘Early Modern Diplomatic Ceremonial: A Systems Approach’, Journal of Modern History, vol. 52, 1980, p. 31Google Scholar.

72 The most famous is his Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1980. Confer, also, Vickers, Adrian, Bali: A Paradise Created, Periplus, Hong Kong, 1996Google Scholar.

73 Kahin, The Asian-African Conference, p. 49.

74 Incidentally, the term ‘Indonesia Merdeka’ first came to be used in 1924 as a title of an organ published by Perhimpunan Indonesia (Indonesian Association) established in 1908. Confer, Hanifah, Abu, Tales of a Revolution, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1972, p. 222Google Scholar. In a similar manner, one of the first acts enacted by President Sukarno in 1950, after finally seizing control from the Dutch, was to rename Koningsplein to Merdeka Square, and the Dutch Residency to Istana Merdeka (Merdeka Palace), etc. Legge, J. D., Sukarno: A Political Biography, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972, p. 240Google Scholar.

75 Legge, Sukarno, p. 1.

76 Sukarno was a constitutional president under constitutional democracy at the time of the conference. Legge, Sukarno, pp. 262, 275.

77 Weinstein, Franklin B., Indonesian Foreign Policy and the Dilemma of Dependence: From Sukarno to Suharto, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1976, p. 64Google Scholar.

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82 Ibid., p. 384.

83 Ibid., p. 358.

84 Ibid., pp. 393–394; Rosihan Anwar, Bersatulah, p. 32.

85 Sukarno, Dr, Dibawah Bendera Revolusi (Under the Banner of Revolution), Publication Committee, Jakarta, 1966, vol. 2, p. 224Google Scholar.

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