[Viewpoint] Bound by the spirit of GwangjuThe May 18, 1980, Gwangju Democratization Movement occupies a special place in the annals of the world’s great peoples rising up against authoritarianism and for democracy.
It was the culmination of a series of mass protests across Korea against the repressive military regime of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who had come to power through a coup d’etat and imposed martial law to suppress opposition. More than 100,000 citizens of the city of Gwangju rose up demanding democracy, labor rights and freedom of the press.
Chun’s regime unleashed a bloodbath, calling the uprising a Communist-inspired rebellion instigated by Kim Dae-jung, who went on to become Korea’s president and to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Hundreds of protestors were killed and went missing. Thousands were wounded and arrested. Kim and many others were jailed and harshly punished.
Although the uprising was brutally suppressed, it dented the legitimacy of the military regime and paved the way for the popular movements that eventually brought democracy to Korea. The Gwangju Democratization Movement had a profound impact on Korean politics and history. It has become a symbol of popular struggle against authoritarian regimes around the world.
To commemorate its spirit, the people of Gwangju established a prestigious international human rights award to honor individuals, groups or institutions in Korea and abroad that have contributed to promoting and advancing human rights, democracy and peace. Recipients have included East Timor’s freedom fighter, and later president, Xanana Gusmao; Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi; and many other dedicated human rights defenders, student leaders and labor rights activists.
The 2010 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights Award winner is Sushil Pyakurel of Nepal. As the Gwangju people’s uprising unfolded in Korea, 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) away, in a small hamlet in southern Nepal, Pyakurel, a young schoolteacher and political activist, was involved in an underground struggle for democracy and human rights. Nepal too was under an authoritarian regime at that time. And while Pyakurel had never heard of Gwangju in those days, the spirit of Gwangju drove much of his work.
The Nepalese overthrew their authoritarian regime through a people’s movement in 1990 and instituted a multiparty democracy. Pyakurel was a foot soldier of that movement and went on to establish Nepal’s largest and most eminent human rights organization, the Informal Sector Service Center.
During his long civic activism, Pyakurel founded the Forum for the Protection of Human Rights; became a commissioner of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission; and is currently president of the Accountability Watch Committee in Nepal and a member of the Dialogue Group for the Constituent Assembly.
In the course of his impressive career, Pyakurel played a crucial role in encouraging international pressure against Nepal’s royal regime, including the establishment of the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal. Collaborating with some of Nepal’s most prominent citizens and celebrities, he is actively involved in a “Rollback Violence” campaign.
Such a campaign is badly needed, as Nepal is currently reeling under a wave of violence with widespread criminalization of politics and politicization of criminal activities. The multiparty democracy that Pyakurel and others helped institute after the 1990 people’s movement was short-lived. In the mid-1990s, a group of young extremist revolutionaries carrying the banner of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist waged a civil war to overthrow the parliamentary democracy and institute a “people’s democratic republic,” sounding very much like the North Korean juche model.
The Maoist rebellion led to the re-emergence of an authoritarian royal regime that unleashed counterrevolutionary violence. This orgy of violence and counterviolence killed more than 15,000 people; wounded, disabled and displaced hundreds of thousands; and left Nepal’s fragile economy, infrastructure and social fabric in tatters.
A second people’s movement was launched in 2006 to end this new civil war and establish a more progressive, republican democracy. Pyakurel was active in this movement, too. The newfound democracy is still fragile, the peace process is still incomplete, and human rights are still insecure. The spirit of Gwangju is still relevant in Nepal.
The honor of the Gwangju Prize will be a shot in the arm for all those Nepalese who continue to struggle for genuine democracy and human rights, as well as social progress and economic prosperity, rather than the chimera of the DPRK-style juche. Nepal and Korea enjoy a good friendship and growing people-to-people contacts. The spirit of Gwangju will bind them even more closely.
*The writer is a former deputy executive director of Unicef and assistant secretary general of the UN.
By Kul Chandra Gautam