[Viewpoint] Return to Yangon

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[Viewpoint] Return to Yangon

So, this is where it happened? There were no signs or physical scars. But the tense air and even tenser expressions on people’s faces indicated that this was indeed the place.

President Lee Myung-bak walked up 10 steps without hesitation. The presidential entourage including Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, Knowledge Economy Minister Hong Suk-woo and Blue House senior secretaries, followed. In front of a red statue, flowers were laid with a ribbon reading “17th President of Republic of Korea Lee Myung-bak.”

Lee dropped his head to say a silent player. His entourage followed suit. Agents from the presidential security service looked around intensely.

It was about 30 seconds, and names flowed through my mind. Deputy Prime Minister Suh Suk-joon, Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok, Commerce Minister Kim Dong-hwi, and Power Resources Minister Suh Sang-Chul, as well as Ham Byeong-chun, Sim Sang-wu, Lee Gi-wuk, Kang In-hee, Kim Yong-han, Kim Jae-ik, Lee Gye-cheol, Ha Dong-seon, Min Byeong-seok, Lee Jae-gwan, Han Gyeong-hee, Jeong Tae-jin and Lee Jung-hyeon: All of whom were killed when a powerful bomb exploded at 10:25 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1983 at the Aung San National Cemetery in Burma, now known as Myanmar.

Perhaps everyone shared the same feeling. They were all physically present but their minds were obviously elsewhere. They all seemed to be thinking about someone from the past. President Lee turned and said, “This is the place where 17 senior officials were sacrificed in an incident that was unimaginable in the history of the 20th century. This history must never be repeated.”

The reason for the South Korean president’s visit to Myanmar was the same this week as in 1983. The intention was that Myanmar must improve its relations with South Korea, not the North. The visit also probably had an intention to encourage change in North Korea via its friend Myanmar. And that’s why a South Korean president visited Myanmar amid terror threats of the North, back then and again this week.

It took 28 years, 219 days and 70 minutes for Lee to return to the site and complete what one of his predecessors intended to do. During that period, South Korea saw dramatic change. It ended the authoritarian era in which military regimes ruled. It proudly tells the world now, “We are the country that achieved industrialization and democratization at the same time.”

“Why are you cooperating with a dictatorship?” Kim Jae-ik, the son of the late Blue House economic affairs senior secretary, once asked his father. Kim reportedly answered, “The opening up of an economy and globalization will eventually shake a dictatorship, and when the market economy is established, a political democratization naturally follows.” South Korea is proof of that idea.

Myanmar, although it has come around a long way, is in the middle of transition. Only a short while ago, Myanmar was a classic example cited in handbook of dictators. When the country was hit severely in 2008 by a cyclone, through which about 500,000 were estimated to have been killed, the military regime led by General Than Shwe forced the people to go back home and work hard rather than providing rescues and assistance to the victims. Returning to their homes, where nothing was left, meant that they would soon face death, but the military regime forced them to go back. It did so because dead citizens couldn’t protest.

But the government of Myanmar began changing starting last year. Although hand-picked by General Than Shwe, President Thein Sein came up with a series of democratization measures. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader of Myanmar and one of the world’s most admired political dissidents, has been released from house arrest and ran for office, and that became the indicator of the country’s democratization process.

In the past, Suu Kyi received foreign dignitaries at her house. But on Tuesday, she visited the hotel where Lee was staying. At a press conference, she spoke slowly but clearly. “We are at a point in the history of our country when there is a possibility of transition, but I do not think we can take it for granted,” she said. “The intention is there and there is goodwill from all of the world, but we have to make sure that we do not dissipate this goodwill, and that we put it to the best use possible by making sure that it is used in the best way possible which is for the sake of our people, not for any group, not for any individual, not for any organization, not for any one government, but for the people.”

What has not changed is North Korea. A third-generation dynastic power transfer took place; it continues nuclear developments and threatens the South incessantly. Sometimes it delivers on those threats, as we saw in last year and the year before that.

And come to think of it, there is another group that has not changed. They are the people who are reluctant to say a single word of criticism toward the North. They are the people who think, “Blind love toward the United States is more of a problem than blind love toward the North.” What do they have to say about the 1983 Yangon bombing? That’s the real question.

*The author is deputy editor of political and international affairs of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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