Myanmar Crisis Calls on South Koreans to Reconsider 1980s Struggle for Democracy | Voice of America
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – Veiled heads in gray, white and black dotted the steps of Myeongdong Cathedral on Monday evening. Muffled voices spoke in prayer as evening commuters and street vendors in Seoul rushed into a blur.
Throughout Korean history, the cathedral has served as a safe haven for the most vulnerable in society – from women workers in a textile company demanding equal treatment, to pro-democracy fugitives during the Korean military dictatorship in the 1980s and journalists fighting for press freedom.
Today people are gathering in the same place again, but this time it is to show their support for Myanmar.
Each year on May 18, South Korea revisits transformative but painful memories of the bloody uprising in Gwangju, in which student activists protesting the military rule were ruthlessly slaughtered in the southwest city.
The nation marks the 41st anniversary of the pivotal protests with a more pressing agenda this year: Koreans reflect on their painful struggle for democracy in order to offer support to Burmese citizens facing a violent and relentless crackdown from the military who seized power in a February coup.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in condemned the repression of civil protests by the Myanmar military in a March 6 message, reaffirming South Korea’s solidarity with Myanmar “for a speedy and peaceful restoration of democracy “. Gwangju Mayor Lee Yong-sup, along with 17 mayors and governors representing all high-level local governments in South Korea have also called for democracy to be restored immediately.
Myanmar and South Korea, which formally established diplomatic ties in 1975, “have experienced closely interwoven cases of political turbulence,” said Eunhui Eom, a Southeast Asian studies researcher at the Center. Asian from Seoul National University.
On May 16, 1961, former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee launched a carefully crafted military coup to overthrow the Second Republic – an event followed by the Burmese coup just a year later that marked the beginning of the socialist regime for 26 years. .
But their paths eventually diverged when South Korea signed a mutual defense treaty with the United States and moved from authoritarianism to democracy, as the military regime tightened its grip on Myanmar, formerly known as the name of Burma, as part of an isolated socialist economy.
It was only through word of mouth from older Burmese that Shun Lei Wutyee of Yangon learned of the so-called “8888” movement – the nationwide democratic uprising led by student activists who took to the streets on May 15, 2019. August 8, 1988 to protest against the army. regime under the ruthless dictatorship of Ne Win.
Now a digital communications student in Seoul, Wutyee, 24, said that when she first read the news of the Myanmar coup in early February, she thought it was wrong. foundation and that things would calm down in a few days. She had never seen bloodshed and thought it would end peacefully.
“But when someone died, I realized it wasn’t a joke,” Wutyee said in Korean. “My generation has never been exposed to this kind of visible violence and it is scary.”
Wutyee now stands in front of large groups, taking advantage of his fluent Korean to tell people about what’s going on in Myanmar, while relearning the history of his own country.
This year, even in the midst of the pandemic, the organizers organize events such as art galleries showcasing paintings by artists in Myanmar, weekly prayers open to the public, street protests outside the Myanmar embassy, recording songs and writing letters to raise funds or the organization of seminars on democracy in Asia.
‘Path to the achievement of democracy’
Myanmar’s 8888 movement and the Gwangju uprising were both fueled by the bravery of young students at the forefront of the resistance, citizens angered by corruption who fought for their right to hold fair elections. and unarmed civilian protesters who risked their lives.
Chun Doo-hwan, responsible for the 1979 military coup and for enforcing the deadly crackdown on protesters in Gwangju, was subsequently elected President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988. The strongman of the The army eventually bypassed his death sentence and recently made headlines for defaming a former democracy activist who survived the protests of the 1980s.
“At the time, Gwangju was described as a failure,” said Professor Choi Jin-bong, who teaches political communications at Sungkonghoe University. “But the story unfolded to show that Korea’s road to achieving democracy would be incomplete without Gwangju’s experience. This is why memories of the uprising are often evoked as living proof of the power of the people.
The uprisings of 8888 met the same fate – violently stopped by the military junta, killing thousands. However, Wutyee said she believed the revolution was also what ultimately fueled the momentum for Aung San Suu Kyi to rise to power after a landslide election victory.
“The more I learn about Gwangju and Myanmar’s resistance efforts, the more strength I find to continue organizing,” Wutyee said. “Sometimes I get overwhelmed with guilt living in Korea because I don’t know if I can live well here while the Burmese are suffering, but I have realized through this battle that I actually love my country.”
Despite the broader similarities Gwangju and Myanmar share, Eom said this comparison should not sweep aside country-specific socio-historical circumstances many of which oversimplify the narrative.
“The solidarity we see from Koreans has never been so fervent,” Eom said. “But Gwangju is just a point at which we can connect Myanmar. We can also look to the People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986 or the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square in China. Ultimately, the Koreans must stand in the position of partisan, so that the Burmese citizens themselves can muster the strength to strike back and resume their narrative. ”
Juhyun Lee contributed to this report.