The Merdeka building stands as a testimony of Asian-African upheaval and unity

BANDUNG (ANTARA) – In the heart of Bandung, the capital of West Java, is a historic structure known as the Kedung Merdeka or Merdeka Building.

It is far from an old building as it witnessed the pivotal moment that sparked the desire for self-determination among Asian and African nations.

The Merdeka building not only has priceless historical value, but also stands as a symbol of the will of Asians and Africans to rise up and unite against the colonial powers. The word „merdeka” means freedom in Indonesian.

On April 18, 1955, the Merdeka building had the privilege of hosting the Asia-African Conference, also known as the Bandung Conference, which became an important milestone in the struggle for decolonization and independence of the 29 participating countries.

It was in the same building that leaders from two different continents met to fight oppression for a brighter future for their people.

From 18-25 April that year, the Merdeka building served as a hub for diplomatic activities, enabling international leaders to exchange ideas.

The leaders produced the 10-point Bandung Declaration they agreed to during the Asian-African Conference, sparking a commitment to Asian and African independence.

Merdeka building over the years

In 1895, the Merdeka Building, located on Asia-Africa Street, was a plain and simple structure in Bandung.

Covering an area of ​​8,710 square meters, the building once served as a meeting place for the Societeit Concordia, a group of Europeans, mostly Dutch, living in and around the city of Bandung. So, at that time, the building was called the Concordia Building.

In 1921, the building was transformed into the most luxurious, complete, exclusive and modern conference venue in Indonesia by the Dutch architect Wolf Schoemaker who used Art Deco style.

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Fast forward to 1940, another Dutch architect, Albert Frederik Albers, renovated and further polished the building with its left-wing international architectural style. The building was used as an entertainment venue during that time.

During the years of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, the main part of the building was renamed Dai Do Kaigan and served as a cultural center. Meanwhile, the leftist Yamato served as a pub, which caught fire in 1944.

The year after Indonesia's declaration of independence on August 17, 1945, the building served as a base for the country's youth militia before hosting the administrative functions of the Bandung Municipal Government.

Indonesia's first president, Soekarno, decided to redecorate the building in preparation for the Asian-African Conference. He also gave it its present name on April 7, 1955. Eleven days later, the building welcomed delegates from 29 countries.

Becoming a part of the nation's history

In early 1954, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (now Sri Lanka), Sir John Kothalawala, invited the Prime Ministers of Burma (Myanmar), India, Indonesia and Pakistan to hold a meeting in his country.

President Soekarno used much of the meeting to instruct Indonesian Prime Minister Ali Sastromidjojo to propose holding a conference that would bring together Asian and African nations.

A year later, Indonesia's founding father successfully appointed the country as the host of the conference and designated Bandung as the host city.

Christophorus Kattan, an official at the Asia-African Convention Museum, said holding the conference at the Merdeka building symbolized the unity of nations struggling to achieve independence and break free from colonial powers.

The conference brought together Asian and African leaders to discuss important issues of independence, decolonization and economic development.

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“Many countries from both continents were still under colonial control. There were 29 countries participating in the Asia-Africa Conference, only six of which were from Africa,” Kattan said on April 17, 2024 at the Merdeka Palace.

He said the summit had inspired Asian and African leaders to invest in even greater efforts to free their countries from the grip of oppressive nations.

„The significant impact of the Asian-African Conference began to become apparent a decade after the event. The conference inspired other countries to launch national movements for independence. As a result, 36 countries in Asia and Africa gained independence,” he added.

On a visit to the Merdeka building, Khattan recalled the time he was led by Maktar Diop, a Senegalese national working as the managing director of the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

During his visit, Diop told Kattan that he had dreamed of coming to Bandung since his father, a Senegalese freedom fighter, often told him about the important role the Merdeka building played in the African country's independence.

“Before he died, my father once told me to come to Bandung, where the building that hosted the Asian-African Conference is located. Senegal's independence emanated from the building,” Kattan quoted Diop as saying.

After the historic conference, the Merdeka building hosted many international meetings and is still a significant symbol of the struggle for independence and economic development of Asian and African countries.

Exploring the Traces of the Asia-Africa Conference

On the east side of the Merdeka building is a museum that is a repository of stories about the Bandung Conference. The museum strives to perpetuate the memories of Asian-African unity.

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The idea to build the museum came from Jupe Awe, a former Indonesian tourism minister who served as the chairman of the committee for the 25th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Summit. Indonesia's second president, Soeharto, inaugurated the museum on April 24, 1980.

As they enter the museum, visitors get the feeling of being transported to Indonesia 70 years ago. In the main conference room, tables and chairs reserved for Asian and African leaders are neatly arranged – the conference has just ended.

Noviasari Rustam, head of the museum, said the museum has many historical artifacts that serve as evidence of Indonesia's diplomatic success in helping Asian and African leaders gain independence.

At the museum, people can see historical photographs and replicas of the national flags of the participating countries that shed light on the period of independence dreams.

The museum displays panels tracing the chronological structure of the conference, its impact on Asian and African countries, notable figures, and the Bandung Declaration.

People can visit the museum without buying a ticket from 9 am to 4 pm local time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Although the Asian-African Conference has long since passed, the remains of the Asian and African leaders' vow to unite in Bandung are safely preserved in the museum.

The Merdeka building and its museum will continue to pass on their stories to future generations.

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