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KOREA: Kwangju: A Flame of Democracy

The first International Youth Camp on Human Rights and Peace in Kwangju, South Korea was held from 14-20 May, 1996 at Songnam Nature Camp. This event was organized by Kwangju Citizens’ Solidarity (KCS) group. There were participants from around 20 countries from Asia, Pacific, Europe and Africa. The event was a significant since it was the first time an international group of young people gathered in Kwangju to witness and join the commemoration activities of the 1980 Kwangju Peoples’ Uprising. 

The Kwangju People’s Uprising 

In May 1980, after Chun Doo Hwan seized power through a military coup d’etat, the South Korean people organized peaceful demonstrations throughout the country. Chun declared martial law and sent in the paratroopers to Kwangju to suppress the student led demonstrations. The paratroopers went on a massive rampage, indiscriminately beating, bludgeoning and bayoneting to death the people of Kwangju. Upon witnessing such savagery, many citizens joined the students and armed themselves to defend the city. They were able to push out the paratroopers to the outer city limits.

For a brief period, the city of Kwangju was a “liberated city” filled with a sense of camaraderie as the people united against the military dictatorship. However, victory was short-lived, as Chun Doo Hwan sent in close to 40,000 soldiers to crush the Uprising. Overall, over 2,000 men, women and children were massacred and many more suffered physical, emotional, and psychological injuries. Although the Kwangju Uprising was crushed by the military, the Uprising has since become a symbol of the democracy movement; and Kwangju as well as the Mang Wol Dong cemetery where some of the Uprising’s heroes are buried, have become the “Mecca” of the democracy movement in South Korea.

The Kim Young Sam administration has acknowledged the wrong-doings of the previous military regimes, including the massacre in Kwangju. General amnesty has been given to all individuals who had participated in the Uprising. The new administration is even considering a national holiday in commemoration of the Kwangju May Uprising. Kim’s administration has finally been able to bring the two former presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Ro Tae Woo to trial. The trial still continues. There is also a popular grass roots movement in South Korea, seeking prosecution of those responsible for the Kwangju massacre.

The Spirit of Kwangju 

Kwangju is a city of peoples’ power and democracy. The people in Kwangju were not even able to talk about the Kwangju Uprising until recently. This year they were able to publicly commemorate the Uprising with the added impetus given by the present government’s move to bring to trial the perpetrators of human rights violations, the two former presidents, Chun Doo Hwan and Ro Tae Woo. However, the story does not end there even if the two former presidents are going to be sentenced to jail. There are many wounds to be healed among the people of Kwangju even after 16 years. Ironically, there still has not been a full scale indepth inquiry into the Kwangju Massacre. 

People in Kwangju are able to commemorate the Kwangju Uprising with much hope for future. The spirit of the people or the Spirit of Kwangju was evident among the thousands of people who gathered on the 17th May evening at the city and the morning of the 18th at the Mang Wol Dong cemetery where most of the victims were put to rest. Today’s situation has improved compared to the situation in 1980. The people of Kwangju have struggled a long way to achieve their goals and aspirations for democracy. They shed a light upon all Asian nations. They bring hope to many people still kept under military regimes with ongoing gross human rights violations, especially places like Myanmar and East Timor, to continue with their full strength. They witness that someday, sooner or later, those perpetrators will have to be accountable to the people whose rights are being violated in brutal forms. They also witness that there is no escape for those perpetrators of human rights violations and sooner or later they will be tried and punished.

The message of peace and democracy was in the blood of the people of Kwangju. It was too costly that they had to shed that blood. Although physically dead the spirit of those lives remains within the people of Kwangju and the same blood carries on the struggle for peace and democracy.

Posted on 1996-10-01
Asian Human Rights Commission

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