A heroic memorial marredOur recent history is a testimony to the rich fruits of democracy, reaped thanks in part to the May 18, 1980 Gwangju democratization movement. Three decades ago, civilians and students in Gwangju marched through the streets, fueled by anger at military abuses of power after years of authoritarian rule. For yearning for democracy, they were mowed down by the military regime. Their revolution had been brutally cut short, but the cries for freedom in one city inspired a nationwide democracy movement in June 1987 that led to the country’s first democratic presidential election. Through public sacrifice, a peaceful transfer of power took place for the first time in our modern history, setting the foundation for a democratic society.
The 1980 civilian protests were a crucial example of how people power could end authoritarian rule in Asia, helping inspire a major revolution in the Philippines that toppled the 20-year dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The May 18 Movement awakened our appreciation for the values of democracy, human rights and peace. We should cherish the legacy the movement left by fostering tolerance and endeavoring to fill the social fissures inside this country and across the northern border.
But we were disheartened to hear about the fallout during a memorial service at the Gwangju national cemetery for the victims of the May 18 movement on Tuesday. The commemoration was disrupted by a walkout by guests angered at the government’s exclusion of the movement’s theme song. The group held a separate ceremony to sing the song. The song, “March for Lovers,” is a eulogy for two lovers victimized by military suppression of the street protests in Gwangju and symbolizes the spirit of the May 18 movement. The government banned the song after public officials sang it instead of the Korean national anthem late last year during a public event.
We understand that the government was only sticking to the rules, but it should have made a special exception for the May 18 memorial service. The song had been sung at the memorial service since 2004, and the government was being excessively rigid when it banned it during the annual event. The government spoiled the important 30th anniversary of the movement because of its narrow-mindedness.
Even conservative Grand National Party floor leader Kim Moo-sung chastised the organizers, calling them immature for ruining the memorial service by arguing over which song to sing. If they lack the heart and sympathy to tolerate one song to commemorate the spirit of these warriors for democracy, how does the government plan to inspire social unity on the issues that really divide us?