Lessons from South Korea’s 5.18 and 4.3

Recently under the 2019 May 18 Academy programme, along with 14 other human rights activists from around the world, I had the chance to visit Gwangju and Jeju Island, South Korea, where we learnt about some of the most significant moments in Korean modern history: the May 18 Gwangju Uprising in 1980 and the Jeju Uprising in 1948.⁣

Observing a moment of silence at Jeju’s Peace Park

The Gwangju Uprising (also called the 5.18 Movement) is a democratic movement that took place in May 1980, initiated by student activists to protest against the martial law enacted by the dictator Chun Doo Hwan. The city of Gwangju became the centre of the country’s demonstrations and the authoritarian government responded violently — killing over 150 civilians and wounding 3,000 others. The democratic movement is said to have inspired the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, China, in 1989 and even the 1998 student demonstrations in Indonesia!

In Gwangju, there are now numerous memorials across the city (shown below). Even though at the time the demonstrations were labeled as “riots” and “rebellions” by the government, with the people’s tireless effort, the Gwangju Uprising was finally recognised as a significant moment in Korea’s democratisation.

Memorials to commemorate the victims of the Gwangju Uprising

In fact, there is even a foundation, the May 18 Memorial Foundation (which is the organisation that held the May 18 Academy), established by the victims’ families and funded by the government to commemorate the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising. We went to visit the Foundation’s office and saw multiple illustrations of the 5.18 Movement, as well as a separate room for “confessions and testimony” for victims or relatives who want to come forward and offer their testimony of the incident. The Foundation is now also active in other efforts on promoting democratisation and human rights around the world, which is why they also present the “Gwangju Prize” for human rights defenders from around the globe. I spotted two awardees from Indonesia, Wardah Hafidz and Latifah Anam Siregar! (Fun fact: Wardah Hafidz’s placard is just right next to Aung San Suu Kyi’s, which was withdrawn in 2018 due to inaction to the Rohingya Crisis. *claps*)

Illustrations and Gwangju Prize placards at the May 18 Memorial Foundation office

On the other hand, the Jeju Uprising (or also called as the 4.3 Massacre) was a people’s movement (and massacre) that happened in Jeju Island from April 1948 to May 1949. At the time, there was an election scheduled by the UN, which the people of Jeju opposed due to the fear that the election would lead to a split between North Korea and South Korea (the Korean War happened just a year after the uprising ended, leading to the division of Korea). The communist Workers Party of South Korea launched an anti-imperialist insurgency, which led to widespread protests across the island.

In response, the Korean government declared martial law and cracked down on protestors and leftists, killing around 30,000 people and forcing thousands others to flee to Japan. For decades, the Korean government repressed and denied this state-perpetrated massacre, describing protestors as “communists” and “rioters” to justify the atrocities. However, in 2006 the South Korean government officially apologised to the people of Jeju, and in 2019, the police and defense ministry followed this action.

The 4.3 Massacre reminded me of a similarly dark incident in Indonesia’s history in 1965, where around 500,000 people were massacred for allegations of being communists or associated to communism. The difference is, until today, the government still has yet to acknowledge and apologise for the extrajudicial killings it committed. No reparations, truth-finding efforts, or reconciliations are taking place. The generals behind those atrocities remain in power. And communism remains a “dirty” and taboo subject in the country.⁣

Various memorials to commemorate the victims of the Jeju Uprising

Learning this part of South Korea’s history was such an eye-opening experience, especially since in Indonesia, Korea is often only associated with the massive capitalisation of their cultural products. I was so impressed by the effort of the Korean government and people to preserve their history and bring justice for the victims & their families. And yet, the human rights activists we met repeatedly mentioned that the efforts are still far from satisfactory and they will continue to push for accountability.

This made me reflect on the 1998 student movement in Indonesia, which is considered a pivotal moment in Indonesia’s democracy for its success in toppling Suharto, the authoritarian dictator who had ruled for 32 years. It reminded me of the gross human rights violations and extrajudicial killings committed by the state in 1965, where half a million people were mercilessly killed and tortured without a fair trial, and to this day their descendants still have to bear the stigma of (allegedly) being associated with the now-banned Communist Party. Yet acknowledgement, reconciliation, and truth-finding efforts remain scarce. We still have a long way to go…

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