Some old wounds never truly heal and bleed again when there is a memory that stood the test of time. My eyes were filled with tears as I stood in solidarity with the heroes of the Gwangju Massacre, which was commemorated on the occasion of the May 18 National Memorial Ceremony at the May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju. Tears are the emotions, words cannot describe.
In the morning of May 18, 2018, the story of an elderly man, who lost his eight-year-old son in the Gwangju Uprising 38 years ago, moved me. The government’s failure to find the human remains of his beloved son since the past 38 years frustrates father. “I lost my trust and I don’t believe in the government anymore,” he expressed his anger during the commemoration event. The story represents the painful history of Gwangju — the people of Gwangju fearlessly resisted against the military dictatorship for 10 days, from May 18 to 27, 1980 when the military regime was seizing power unlawfully.
Although the pro-democratic movement paved the way for democracy of modern Korea, the freedom fighters, including survivors, victims and their family, still awaits justice, reparation and due respect for their sacrifice during the struggle. Nonetheless, the peoples of Gwangju no longer surrender as they thrive the Spirit of 1980 struggle through commemoration event and many other activities alike, and their persistent and relentless voices for human rights, justice and democracy in the country. And such efforts go beyond Korea to encourage the similar efforts for human rights and democratic movements in Asia and across the world. In doing so, the May 18 Memorial Foundation plays a crucial role.
Coming from a marginalized community – Madhesis – that suffered a long state oppression since the formation of modern Nepal, I hold the Spirit of a similar democratic movement in Nepal. We call it ‘Madhes Movement’ (2007, 2008 and 2015/16) that I find is similar to the Gwangju Uprising when it comes to its nature in origin and conclusion. Both the movements were for the establishment of democracy. These uprisings started from a region but led to a breakthrough for democratization in both countries.
In Nepal, the Madhes Movement started from Madhes, a southern plains extending from the east to the west, and led to federalism in the country against the unitary rule. The movement has helped federalize the country to become the home of its diverse population with equality and dignity. Although the the 2015 Constitution of Nepal, that was passed amid the state repression against ongoing Madhes Movement, institutionalized the federalism, the state has ironically failed to duly acknowledge the role of the movement in the preamble of the Constitution. The spirit of Madhes Movement carries for equality and justice and respect for human rights and democracy in Nepal.
Inspired by the activities of the May 18 Memorial Foundation to promote the Spirit of Gwangju Uprising and its solidarity for the struggles for human rights, justice and democracy in Asia and across the globe, I joined the foundation to gain the life experience to make my dream come true. My dream is my dedication to serve the revelation of the lively, fervent and motivated spirit of the pro-democratic Madhes Movement through the similar activities in the country.
As the political parties fighting for the movement tend to compromise with the ruling parties and the victims await for justice, reparation and due respect for their sacrifice in the struggle, thriving the spirit of the movement is relevant to me and many who stand together with similar belief and commitment.
The May 18 Memorial Foundation gives me an opportunity to explore and learn different the ways to promote the spirit of democracy movement through a number of activities. The learning with the foundation, which I believe is unlike in other places and is amazing — is the learning by doing. It is helping me unleash your creativity and engage with critical engagement with struggles for human rights and democratic movement.
Though I completed my first month of my internship in May, I share my overwhelming experience of organizing this year’s Gwangju Asia Forum in a successful manner.
Gwangju Asia Forum 2018
It was barely two weeks before The May 18 Foundation’s annual international event – Gwangju Asia Forum 2018 – when I joined the foundation as an intern. Held from May 16 to 18 at Gwangju, the ‘Gwangju Asia Forum’ is an international annual event of the foundation to bring together activists from Asia to discuss pertinent issues of human rights and democracy. It is a unique platform for exchanging and networking with democracy and human rights activists in Asia.
The preparations for this year’s forum were already underway at the time of my arrival. Based on the briefings made by the colleagues at the International Desk, I followed their instructions and aided them in the pre-conference activities. I asked the team members to ensure anything further required to be done. Upon realizing its urgency, I wrote a brief announcement about the Gwangju Asia forum and published on the Asian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRCs) website.
SOUTH KOREA/HONG KONG: Gwangju Asia Forum 2018
The main highlights of this year’s Gwangju Asia Forum were the 20th Anniversary of the Asian Human Rights Charter through three declarations on the right to justice, right to peace and right to culture, and cultural identity, the May 18 Commemoration March and the May 18 National Memorial Ceremony and Gwangju Human Rights Prize. Alongside those events, 2018 State Violence Trauma Forum and Asia Democracy Network Forum, Grassroots Organization Support Workshop, May 18 Education Forum and the East Asia Democracy Human Rights Peace Network Meeting were also the significant activities during the Gwangju Asia Forum 2018.
On 16 May, the 2018 Gwangju Asia Forum kicked off with the launch of May 18 Memorial Ceremonies. To formally launch the event, Mr. Basil Fernando, AHRC’s Director for Policy and Programmes, delivered the keynote speech on the theme ‘The Need to Shift Emphasis on Implementation of Rights through Effective Justice Mechanisms’.
Basil Fernando’s Keynote Address at the Gwangju Human Rights Forum
In his keynote address, Basil introduced the purpose of the gathering, which was to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Asian Human Rights Charter.The Charter was promulgated by the foundation and AHRC 20 years ago after a prolonged period of deliberations with human rights activists, academics, and other interested persons in the region. He reminded that the May 18 Memorial Foundation wanted the Charter to as a representation of the Gwangju spirit – the spirit of the uprising and the spirit of those who sacrificed their lives to ensure that the democracy will triumph and the militarism will be defeated.
20th Anniversary of the Asian Human Rights Charter: Asian Declarations on the Right to Justice, the Right to Peace and the Right to Culture:
The May 18 Memorial Foundation and AHRC marked the 20th Anniversary of the Asian Human Rights Charter through the announcement of Asian Declarations on Right to justice, Right to Peace and Right to Culture. The announcement of these declarations followed the respective sessions on the rights to justice, peace and right to culture.
The commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the charter was done through the discussion of three documents: a declaration on Right to Justice, a declaration of Right to Peace and a declaration of Right to Culture and Cultural Identity. All these three documents are interlinked, and therefore carry a common theme.
There is a linkage between the Asian Charter and three declarations through an explanation on the continuous threats on human rights and democracy based on recent incidence from many of Asian countries, including Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and others. The declaration of rights and the actual implementation of these rights remain a vast gap.
The idea of the Asian Charter when adapted 20 years ago was to raise this issue in a sharpest possible manner, and to urge the governments and the peoples of this countries to come to recognize these problems and to find ways to resolve this problem. However, there has hardly been much progress during these 20 years. This is why, the declaration on Right to Justice was chosen. Where there are no possibility of seeking justice effectively, there is no possibility of maintaining peace and right to culture in the region. For the similar reasons, the declarations on the Right to Peace and Right to Culture and Cultural Identity were made.
Here is my Op-Ed published by the Korea Herald:
The May 18 Commemoration March and the May 18 National Memorial Ceremony
The May 18 Commemoration March to the May 18 Democracy Square on May 17, and the May 18 National Memorial Ceremony at the May 18 National Cemetery on May 18 prevailed as the main attraction of the Gwangju Asia Forum.
The special visit of South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon to the May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju on May 18 to pay tribute to those who fought for democracy added a great value to the May 18 National Memorial Ceremony. Prime Minister Lee, who spoke to the audience on behalf of President Moon, conveyed the government’s promise and sincere effort for fact-finding missions for the May 18 Uprisings.
The 10-day from May 18 to 27, 1980, commonly known as the ‘May 18 Uprisings’ remained the painful history of modern Korea when the military regime that was unlawfully seizing power brutally repressed the resistance by hundreds of citizens in the city of Gwangju. Historically, the May 18 Democratization Movement brought democracy in Korea.
The May 18 National Cemetery was thronged with more than a thousand of people to express their condolences and pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the pro-democracy movement in 1980. At the May 18 National Cemetery, almost everyone cried when they recalled the sufferings of the people, and expressed their anger against the then military.
Gwangju Human Rights Prize 2018
To promote the spirit of the May 18 Democratization Movement, in which the people of Gwangju resisted against brutal military forces for the sake of democracy and human rights in 1980, the May 18 Memorial Foundation recognizes the exemplary efforts of individuals and organizations aspiring to the restoration of justice and human rights in their respective countries through the Gwangju Human Rights Prize. Since 2000, the ‘Gwangju Prize for Human Rights’ is an appendage of the Gwangju Asia Forum.
This year, the ‘Gwangju Prize for Human Rights’ was bestowed on Fr. NandanaManatunga for his remarkable contribution in supporting the victims of the state violence during Sri Lanka’s Dark Age between 2005 and 2015. Fr. Nandana has especially stood on the side of the victims, who have suffered under the dictatorship of the Executive of the country, to fight for them. The victims who had been illegally incarcerated for 7 or 8 years without trials were freed with the help of Fr. Nandana.
The 2018 Gwangju Asia Forum by the May 18 Memorial Foundation was a grand success. There are many takeaways from the important forum in Asia. However, I jot down the key takeaways which I, as a human rights defender and researcher interested in democracy and human rights in Asia and a journalist reporting on the issues of social justice, human rights and democracy in Nepal, feel is equally important for all the participants.
First, the May 18 Memorial Foundation and the people of the Gwangju have been striving for archiving and promoting the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. Such an effort is rare in case of many movements globally. Thirty-eight years of the uprising has elapsed but the people of Gwangju have not surrendered themselves. They are still expressing their anger against the then military regime and asking their government to further delve into the truth and investigation aiming to justice, reparation and respect their sacrifice for the democracy in the country, This was reflected through the commemoration ceremony at the May 18 National Cemetery. The people across the world should not forget the movements and struggle against dictatorship and unlawful state violence but they should keep the struggle as an ongoing movement.
Second, the human rights situation in many countries of Asia has not improved much. The victims of human rights violations across Asia are constantly struggling to enjoy their right to justice. The national justice framework for the violations of human rights does not exist or work for justice, remedy and reparation in Asia. This is unlike in developed countries, where the implementation process through the justice mechanisms comes into effect once a state becomes a signatory to a UN convention. The international covenants and conventions in Asia have remained merely documents without their practical implementation. The realization of such failure led to the announcement of three Asian declarations on a right to justice, a right to peace and a right to culture as the May 18 Memorial Foundation and AHRC commemorated the 20th anniversary of Asian Human Rights Charter: A People’s Charter. These documents, which are the supplements to the Asian Charter, could provide a strong creative source to generate the most vital discussion on the actual implementation of rights in Asia.
Last but not the least, human rights and democracy in the region has always been vulnerable to threats and harsh criticism. With the passage and existence of laws hindering certain freedoms, it is high time that human rights defenders should unite in scrutinizing the government’s lapses and safeguarding the democratization in the region. The 2018 Gwangju Asia Forum served as an impetus for them to promote their efforts.
I am set to await the amazing opportunities of the May 18 Memorial Foundation in coming 11 months. During the period, I am not just learning South Korean history but also observing the associations like the May 18 Memorial Foundation have devised strategies to preserve the history of the Gwangju Uprising and have been contributing to promote the spirit of the movement for democratization in South Korea. This opportunity is enhancing my capacity and skills to carry out similar activities to archive and rediscover and promote the spirit of the movement in Nepal. And it also help me sensitize to stand in solidarity for human rights and democracy across the globe.
As I conclude here, the high level of recognition that the Korean government accords to the May Uprising left an everlasting impression on me. Still, many things more to share and more to learn.