A LESSON IN DEMOCRATIC CULTURE FROM S KOREA
First Published in The Nation ttp://www.nationmultimedia.com/
South Korea may be the world’s 12th-largest economy, but it’s also one of Asia’s hubs for democratic movements.
The resilience of the South Korean people’s democratic spirit and their recognition of the importance of remembering past struggles are on display every May, when citizens of Kwangju come together to commemorate the uprising that took place in that month in 1980.
During the uprising, people there bravely fought for democracy against dictatorial rulers in an open battle that raged for a week until the military surrounded the city and ruthlessly attacked the provincial hall, a stronghold of the protesters, on May 27. By then, the number of those killed had reached 154, with 64 more missing and 3,139 wounded. It wasn’t until 1993 that the uprising was recognised for what it was.
Unlike in Thailand, where fewer people seem interested in commemorating the events of May 1992 each year, South Koreans make a conscious effort to remember and build upon the strength of the past. First, they enjoy full financial and political support from the now democratic government. The atmosphere in the city of Kwangju resembles a carnival every May 18, when the streets in the centre of the city are closed for an evening of events. The impressive, solemn ceremony held at the cemetery in honour of those killed in the uprising is attended by no less than the South Korean president himself. As for Thailand, not even a single deputy prime minister was seen on Rajdamnoen Avenue this year.
The second notable difference between the two countries is the stress that is laid on transmitting the memory of the past struggles to the young. This ranges from painting contests and the development of a young-volunteer system, to a symbolic game during the evening celebration in which adults form a bridge with their backs to allow children to walk onto the stage as if to signify that they are committed to paving the way for the freedom of future generations. The May 18 Memorial Foundation has successfully enlisted the assistance of as many as 40 university student volunteers to take care of participants in the International Peace Camp that is held during the celebrations.
A third difference between the Thai and Korean experience is that, Kwangju, in cooperation with the May 18 Memorial Foundation, has taken advantage of its larger budget by giving annual human-rights awards to foreigners over the past four years. This May the award went to Aung San Suu Kyi. The foundation has also hosted the International Peace Camp to bring together people involved in democratic struggles from around the region, as well as researchers and media people. The camp reflects the South Koreans’ determination to spread the spirit of Kwangju beyond its national borders and to foster people-to-people cooperation.
Another major difference lies in the efforts to include information relating to democratic uprisings in published material. The Korean government set up and began funding an independent foundation called the Korea Democracy Foundation in 2001. The foundation is tasked with researching and educating people about the sacrifices of those who have worked to promote democracy. Last year, the foundation published a 432-page book in English entitled "Memories of May 1980". This is a contrast to Thailand, where such literature, both in Thai and English, is lacking.
Of course, history should not come in just one version. Already some Koreans feel that the voices of the rank-and-file soldiers who were killed by pro-democracy protesters deserve to be recorded and made public too. Given such a lively climate of democracy, it’s no wonder that the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, a result of 20 years of struggle, is well-respected and is given due support by its government, according to Choi Eun-suk, an investigator at the commission, which will later this year host a big international conference in Seoul.
In Thailand, the Thaksin administration has on several occasions openly expressed its contempt for the Thai National Human Rights Commission, even as the commission struggles to make itself relevant to Thai society. There can be little doubt that as long as we cannot properly honour and learn from past struggles, we are bound to repeats our mistakes. How the past is remembered in South Korea serves as a reminder that popular alliances are important if international relations are to be rescued from issues of trade or political interest that are manipulated by the elite.
Pravit Rojanaphruk Pravit Rojanaphruk was a participant in the recently concluded workshop organised by AHRC in collaboration with May 18 Foundation.
Posted on 2004-06-07