|▲ Surgit Singh Puri from India looks around the May 18 Memorial Hall at the building of the May 18 Institute at CNU.
The Gwangju Democratization Movement is certainly the corner stone of Korea’s democracy. It was an explosion of civilian dissatisfaction with a military junta that had seized power and ultimately led to the setting up of a democratic government in the country. The democratic movement is unique in the sense that unlike other uprisings in the world for the change of government, there were no reports of arson and looting which normally take place in such movements. Even in my country India which believes in non-violence, some ugly incidents did take place when the country was divided after the British left India. The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising is a torch of democracy for others to emulate.
Gwangju has a long history of observing a tradition of justice and loyalty. The people always came to the forefront of defending the country. When I came to this city, the hometown of my beloved wife, I naturally wanted to know the history of this city. I was aware of Gwangju’s importance as the city which initiated the movement to overthrow the military junta which had seized power, but still not apprised of the actual facts and reasons of many tourists places marked on the map relating to the movement.
I was really pleased to learn that after the semester exam. We students of the Korean language course would be taken around the city for apprising us of the important tourist places connected with the history of the city and the country. This proposed excursion also motivated me to explore the Internet and collect whatever literature I could collect from the local tourism office. To my surprise, I was amazed that the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in fact started from my college Chonnam National University’s front gate at 10 o’clock in the morning on May 18th, 1980 when students demonstrating against the school closing were beaten and chased by the army paratroopers and many students were later arrested.
A mixed feeling of reverence and guilt filled me: reverence for my seniors of the university who were the torch bearers for starting the movement against the autocratic military regime and a guilty feeling as I am also a paratrooper and had faced the same feeling when interacting against fellow citizens in similar circumstances. But unlike in other countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq where in such circumstances the army head is killed, in Korea the people responsible for the massacre of citizens (224 killed and 3000 wounded) were brought to trial.
Kim Young-sam, South Korea’s first democratically elected civilian president in May 1993, in his speech wanted to ‘set history to right’ by turning the movement by the earlier military government as “a rebellion backed by some seditious power scheming to overthrow the government.” However, the Gwangju Democratic Uprising has yet to be discovered as many secrets are still buried in the Mangwaldong cemetery where the victims were initially buried and later shifted to the May 18 National Cemetery on the outskirts of the city.
The government set up the ‘May 18 History Complication Committee of Gwangju City in which two professors of CNU, Kim Dong-won and Hong Sung-heup were members and the university has the May 18 Institute. UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program has recognized the May 18 Uprising documents as documentary heritage. The Korean government has prepared an exhaustive list of May 18 Democratic Uprising documents. The documentary collection includes a total 858904 sheets and 4271 volumes in text, 2017 negative films and 1733 photographs. The documentary collections have been categorized under nine themes for easy location.
The government plans to use this data/information in school textbooks to educate students on democracy and dissemination for the purpose. It is proposed to establish the ‘May 18 Democratic Uprising Archive’ at the Gwangju Catholic Center on Geumnamro. It is also proposed to name a street ‘May Street’ to recommend suitable memorials in memory of the historic events. In 1994 the May 18 memorial campaign started with the government grant and private donations to engrave the May 18 spirit on the hearts of the people struggling for liberty, democracy and justice.
There are as many as 26 May 18 memorial historic sites and a pilgrimage to all these sites is a must for paying reverence to the people “who give their today for your tomorrow.” These historic sites where the harmonious combination of traditional and modern architecture, produces a rich cultural ambience that sets Gwangju apart as an international city of the culture in the coming century. When the construction of these memorials is completed, Gwangju will become a sacred place for democracy where civic rights, peace and reconciliation will live forever.
It is also heartening to note that many related associations/organizations have been created to honor these unsung heroes. Beside the ministry of patriots and veteran affairs, the others are the May 18 Memorial Foundation, May 18 Bereaved Family Association, Association of the Wounded in May 18 Gwangju Uprising, and the Association of the Arrested in the May 18 Gwangju Uprising. All these have contributed immensely in rewriting the history of May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. The testimonials have found a place in the memory of the world register (UNESCO). But then all memorials are not made of stone. Though the uprising was initially frustrated it has not gone down in history as a failure. We should learn from the past history. The event provided an opportunity for people to assert their identity as citizens with civic and political rights. The event changed the direction of modern Korean history.
Every May 18th, the event is commemorated as a victory conquering yesterday’s defeat. But then to ensure that the spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising is to shine brightly into the future, we must sort out petty differences which have cropped up due to politics, for example, why are we still divided on “Marching Songs for Our Beloved Ones” and why our youth is still not converse about such great sacrifices made by our own people, not even a decade back.
It is a pity that such commemoration days are ill-attended. The youth is now made concerned about their look and physical beautification. It is sad that golf courses and five star hotels have cropped up next to these holy places which stern away attention from these pilgrim places. It is also food for thought to reconsider constructing innumerable stone structures of huge dimensions which are difficult to maintain in a land starved nation. But to a layman like me, coming from a different land, my admiration for this cradle of democracy has increased the more I go through the history and spirit of Gwangju. Maybe I was blessed by god to visit this ‘Bethlehem’ of the east.
By Surgit Singh Puri, Indian Student Attending Korean Language Course, Language Education Center at CNU