Anti-gov’t rally is a model of peaceful protest

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Anti-gov’t rally is a model of peaceful protest

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Civic group members opposed to the government’s plan to write history textbooks join a rally Saturday in front of the Seoul Finance Center in Jung District, central Seoul. Many demonstrators wore masks to protest the government and ruling Saenuri Party’s plan to ban protestors from wearing masks to conceal their identities. [NEWSIS]

More than 10,000 antigovernment demonstrators peacefully marched through central Seoul Saturday for the second demonstration in a month against the Park Geun-hye administration and its policies.

In contrast to expectations that the gathering would turn violent like on Nov. 14, when at least 51 of some 64,000 people who took part were booked on the spot for assaulting police officers and damaging police equipment, the latest rally finished in six hours with no one being arrested or injured, according to police.

The rally was chiefly held to protest government labor reforms considered detrimental to blue-collar and temporary workers, and the Park government’s reinstating of state-authored history textbooks for schools.

Police initially prohibited the gathering for public safety reasons, but a local court ruled that the restriction infringed upon the freedom of assembly.

Authorities said around 14,000 people from 500 labor groups and civic organizations joined the gathering. Around 18,000 police officers were dispatched to the scene, while 18 water cannon trucks and 20 buses for barricades stood by in case tensions escalated.

Police did not use tear gas or water cannons and protestors refrained from using ropes and iron hammers. At least 113 police officers were injured Nov. 14 when demonstrators used the tools to damage government equipment such as buses.

“We’ve successfully held a peaceful rally,” Moon Jae-in, chairman of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), said Saturday during a candlelight vigil in the Daehakro neighborhood of central Seoul.

“Laborers, farmers and citizens all displayed a mature sense of citizenship today, and the police helped make this a peaceful convention,” he added. Moon said this was “proof” that protestors could peacefully express their anger toward a government that was “degenerating in terms of democracy.”

A candlelight vigil was held later that night to support a farmer critically injured by a water cannon Nov. 14. Baek Nam-gi, a 68-year-old farmer from Boseong County, South Jeolla, was knocked down and collapsed, losing consciousness before being taken to Seoul National University Hospital with a brain hemorrhage.

Baek has yet to regain consciousness after surgery.

“The doctors said chances are low he’d recover from the injuries,” said Yoo Yeong-hun, a farmer who claimed to be Baek’s friend, at Saturday’s vigil. “When he arrived at the emergency ward three weeks ago after being hit by a water cannon, the right side of his head was torn apart, the skull fractured and brain damaged.”

Saturday’s rally saw a stark rise in the number of protestors who wore masks of various sorts.

Authorities said some 30 percent who joined the 3.5 kilometer-march (2.2 miles), which stretched from Seoul Plaza in front of Seoul City Hall to Marronnier Park in Daehakro, wore different sorts of facial coverings, some very fanciful.

This was an obvious mockery of President Park’s statement late last month at a Cabinet meeting that protestors should be banned from wearing masks, likening them to “terrorists of the Islamic State.”

The ruling Saenuri Party followed her statement by trying to revise the Assembly and Demonstration Act, saying terrorists could take advantage of the practice by “hiding” behind the masks.

“We’re not a part of ISIS,” said Kwon Hyeok-ju, a 15-year-old teenager who was with a friend at the rally, both wearing masks. “We’re ordinary teenagers, and we decided to come out to oppose the reintroduction of state-authored history textbooks. It’s ridiculous that the government would label us ISIS.”

A 41-year-old mother surnamed Yoo said she encouraged her 4-year-old son Mi-reu to wear a mask with his favorite character on it to the rally. “I brought my child here today believing that the introduction of state-authored history textbooks would do him no good,” said Yoo, who asked that her full name not be published.

With Saturday’s protests ending peacefully, authorities were waiting Sunday for Han Sang-gyun, head of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the organizer of the Nov. 14 rally, to give himself up to police.

The 53-year-old, who has been hiding in Jogye Temple to avoid arrest, reportedly told the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism Lay Buddhist Association last week he would leave Sunday. As of press time Sunday, he remained inside. Hundreds of police were stationed around the temple in central Seoul.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, CHAE YOON-KYUNG, CHO HYE-KYUNG [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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