Archive for the '1980' Category

‘We are May 18’

Amit Sengupta
Gwangju (Republic of Korea)

The May 18, 1980 Gwangju uprising against military dictatorship is a reminder that history is still incomplete

There is a chill in the air and the flowers are blooming in orange, blue and vermilion-yellow on the beautiful, stunningly clean, pebbled, rain-washed, sunshine streets of Gwangju, the epical landmark of the great democratic uprising against military dictatorship in 1980. The city is celebrating, even as young couples walk through the inner lanes holding hands. There are banners everywhere, anticipations, tragic memories; there is the will to hope, to create new rainbows of democracy, justice and freedom.

There are old ‘war-zone’ landmarks, the sacred places of the dead, the missing and the murdered, the spontaneous students’ protests at the Chonnam National University, the ‘civilian army’s’ combat with the armed forces at the legendary Provincial City Hall which was captured by the people. May 18 is in the air. The Koreans call it simply: 5.18.

In down town Gwangju students are preparing for massive demonstrations, carnivals and traditional/revolutionary cultural shows. The market is overwhelmed with young people, girls and couples, schoolgirls in uniform, while food stalls in handcarts are happy with the crowds. At the Kenya Espresso coffee shop, a young history teacher sipping coffee with her school students, sums it up: “I am proud of the May 18 uprising. I was 12-year-old then, but I know that this change was necessary. Not much is mentioned in the textbooks, but I show videos, keep the memory alive,” says Kim Young Sin. Her student is not shy. “When I see the images of the massacre, tears flow down my eyes,” she says.

The May 18 Memorial Foundation is celebrating the 27th anniversary of the uprising, and the city is proud of it. Gwangju stands in world history as a city which knows how to preserve its precious memories and respect it, because the inhabitants are deeply aware that those, who inherit the fruits of democracy and then choose to forget the sacrifices of their rebels, are fated to be condemned. “South Korea is indebted to Gwangju,” says journalist Moon Tae Jeong.

That is why two Indians have been awarded the prestigious $50,000 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights this year: Irom Sharmila of Manipur, for her six-year-long fast against the repressive Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1985; and Lenin Raghuvanshi of UP, for fighting child and bonded labour and untouchability in the Hindi heartland. Ironically, the organisers said, the Indian government refused to respond.

The Foundation building in the heart of the city is a sacred space. There are 135 delegates in the East Asia peace forum shaking hands, feminists, journalists and human rights activists from Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma (exiled pro-democracy freedom fighters), Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Japan. Predictably, none from China or North Korea.

“We want a new Asian solidarity, a new vision for human rights in South Korea and Asia,” said Foundation Chairman Honggil Rhee. He was a 39-year-old history professor in 1980 who fully backed the movement and was suspended and jailed. “Korean people believed that military dictatorship under Chun-Doo-Hwan is not acceptable. Students and professors joined the struggle of the citizens. The killings started. They thought they could crush the movement for democracy and set an example. It back-fired because of the people’s resilience. We learnt many things from the rising. We have to constantly fight to get and retain democracy. These were the highest form of sacrifices and we just can’t afford to forget that,” he said.

During and after the democratic and peaceful uprising and the massacre that followed, the people took up arms. A civilian army was formed with students, teachers, workers, farmers, doctors, daughters and mothers. The Provincial City Hall was liberated as a symbol and the city too was liberated. People spilled onto the streets to create support systems. Weapons were looted. Food supply was restored, cooking often on the streets. The locals looked after the injured. The dead were buried.

The city’s memories are full of dark anecdotes. There were stories that the clampdown was US-backed because the military dictatorship was supported by the US. The city was isolated and under siege. No news was allowed to filter out. The rest of the world, from May 18 to May 27, 1980, was blocked out, and even much later, for months. Rumours were circulated by the dictatorship that the uprising was inspired by anarchists and communists led by North Korea, which proved to be an utter lie, because it started as a spontaneous and peaceful rebellion of ordinary citizens, disgusted and angry with the atrocities of military rule.

A taxi driver saw the killings. A priest from a nearby province discovered the bloody stories. A shoeshine boy was a witness, and later, a fighter. The stories started floating out. Some people arrived from Seoul to find the city “as usual”, with not a flutter—so entrenched was the terror. Then the rebellion started spreading with word and text, the dirty official rumours began to sound dirty, protests moved in a spiral from villages to towns and cities, especially among the strong Leftist, anti-imperialist students’ movement in Seoul. But it still took a while, almost a decade and more, for the military dictatorship to dismantle its ugly scaffoldings.

The official death count of the Gwangju massacre is 207. The unofficial runs in the 2,000 plus figure. There are many who have still not been identified. Many students died fighting. The missing have gone missing. Many fell to their injuries, many were tortured, many became insane, some committed suicide. All stories remain categorical yet ambiguous, moving from lips to lips, eyes to eyes, fingers to fingers, flowers to flowers.

But the spirit and the soul of the great rebellion remains. At the sublimely aesthetic National May 18 Democratic Cemetery, an hour from Gwangju, where the entire city, political establishment, students, Buddhist monks, mothers and relatives of the fighters, remember the martyrs with a series of prayer meetings and traditional Korean songs. Tears flow easily. On the mud and grass graves, they put food and Soju, the local drink. A girl student kneels and touches a grave: she has read about it, she wants to feel it herself.

A young Korean volunteer tells us that there are 481 graves, there are more ‘spaces’ for those yet to be discovered, “We are still looking for dead bodies.” Next to every grave, there are vases of flowers, neatly arranged, a message and name on the little monument, and a framed photograph of the rebel: girls, boys, elders, and workers. Those whose pictures can’t be found, or who can’t be identified, have a framed flower instead of a face: Mugunghwa, the serene national flower of South Korea, with its unique aroma.

The aroma spreads. In down town Gwanju outside the epic landmark of the City Hall, thousands are marching, screaming, shouting pro-unification (with North Korea), pro-democracy and anti-Bush slogans, grandmothers with drums, masked students with branches of the trees, girls with paper lamps, workers and activists with torch-lights, with massive music in the background. Thousands are holding hands and singing. All the delegates of the May 18 peace forum are jumping, hugging and clapping. They are all singing, laughing, shouting slogans, some with tears in their eyes. “We are May 18,” says a poster in a students’ hand. “Chun-Doo-Hwan, go do harakiri,” shouts the woman leader on the loud-speaker. They hate Chun-Doo-Hwan. Thousands repeat this angry slogan. Again and again.

At the entrance of the sunshine cemetary, there are two banners, which sum it up, simply: History is Never Complete, May 18 Uprising is Continuing… It is not Finished.

Yes, because ‘We are May 18’.


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