May 7, 2021

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writing, mostly, on contemporary issues of human rights, politics & social justice

To Remember, We Must First Learn

Nepal must learn lessons from South Korea to preserve its public-led reconciliation and memories of democratic struggles so as to pass on these lessons to the future generation.

Originally Published by The Kathmandu Post

The Gantantra Smarak or Republic Monument, a concrete structure nestled awkwardly over 35 ropanis of land on the eastern side of Narayanhiti Palace, has, as of yet, remained closed to the public. Though the construction began nearly five years ago, it continues to remain barren of any guests.

At present, it seemingly exists to simply exude symbolic significance as a concrete interruption to its monarchical counterpart. According to its contractors and those involved in the design, the monument serves to also memorialise those who lost their lives during the decade-long civil war. Plans depicted four pillars—each commemorating martyrs who sacrificed their lives or those who disappeared during the civil war.

While the public cannot corroborate these plans—as few have been able to enter the monument’s premises—one thing is certain: a structure, no matter its symbolic significance, is not enough to commemorate, memorialise, educate and remember the events that this nation grappled with from 1996 – 2006.

The structure must do more than symbolise. It must, first and foremost, educate a country that continues to struggle with reconciling with and learning from its many upheavals. In order to educate, it must be transparent about the very lives they seek to commemorate.

For instance, including on one of those proposed pillars a list of the many victims and families who are still awaiting justice; or even disassociating ‘martyrs of the movement’ from those who lost their lives at their hands in order to pay more respects to victims and their families. This level of intentionality is especially important in the Nepali context, considering our collective amnesia over social movements including the Madhes movement of 2008-2015/16.

South Korea, a country that has also experienced bloody upheavals during its democratic transition, is a testament to how intentional state and public-led reconciliation efforts have supported overall national growth and progress.

Gwangju Uprising 1980

South Korea’s modern democracy experienced frequent upheavals until 1980 when the May 18 Democratic Uprising took place. Following the May 16 coup in 1961, military general Park Chung Hee seized power and recast the highly authoritarian constitution of South Korea in 1963. He served as an authoritarian president until he was assassinated in 1979.Park’s demise was a hope for South Korea but that sense of optimism ceased to linger. The call for democracy was quashed by another military coup led by Army General Chun Doo-hwan.

Chun rose to power and continued the authoritarian regime under the constitution. More than 166 people lost their lives during the Gwangju Uprising. The struggles of the Gwangju Uprising pxrompted the pro-democratic forces to extend the fight nationwide and bring those responsible for the massacre to justice. In the June Uprising of 1987, they finally defeated the dictatorship.

Lesson for Nepal

Thousands of people sacrificed their lives to abolish monarchy and turn Nepal into a democratic republic. But, unlike the cases of democratic struggles in Nepal, the memory of the Gwangju uprising is kept alive by the victims who survived it as well as by relatives and friends of the victims who died.

They have also collected documents pertaining to the uprising, catalogued them and had them included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

They have successfully pressed for a fair recounting of what actually happened and for prosecutions. Two former presidents of South Korea—Chun Doo Hwan and Rho Tae-woo—have even been convicted for their role in the Gwangju uprising.

May 18 is also observed as National Memorial Day in South Korea, allowing for communities across the nation to come together to remember and re-learn the movement from a variety of standpoints.  Even today, after 38 years of the Gwangju Uprising, people in South Korea preserve the May 18 spirit. But they do more than just remember; in the process of continually reconciling with its past, important actions have been taken as a means to preserve justice.

For example, the pro-democratic spirit among the people has even led to the impeachment of their last President Park Geun-hye through their Candlelight Revolution in 2016. The revolution brought out over 16 million people to the streets—almost a third of the country’s population.

Last September, the May 18 Truth Unveiling Special Committee formed by the government began the sixth governmental investigation about the uprising. Last week, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologised for the unspeakable pains inflicted on innocent victims in 1980. This public apology spurred important discussions in the public and serves as just one of many examples of how the state and the public have come together to grapple with past democratic movements in the country.

The citizens of Gwangju and Korea have not given up and they are still struggling for the justice. These changes can be seen in their attitude towards their democratic struggles.

Through the May 18 Memorial Foundation, they are preserving the memories of those involved along with demanding justice for its victims. The people feel grateful to those who sacrificed their lives for the democracy in the country and continue to remember these events not only through surface-level approaches that seek to “memoralise” but also through intentional and deliberate ways to educate incoming generations.

Nepal must learn lessons from South Korea to preserve its public-led reconciliation and memories of democratic struggles so as to pass on these lessons to the future generation. Unlike the government, people should proactively take the lead in recounting the stories of democratic struggles and continue the fight of those who sacrificed their lives for democracy in Nepal.

The public, the state, and other stakeholders must unite to effectively engage with the reconciliation process in a way that promotes the true spirit of democracy and grapples with the truth and justice of those who sacrificed their lives to bring changes to this country.

The construction of a ‘Republic monument’ is not enough. Without public engagement, the monument simply stands as a concrete statue of symbolic significance rather than an educational tool that could serve as a more effective symbol to respect sacrifices made by millions of people during the war.

The author is a human rights researcher at the May 18 Memorial Foundation based in Gwangju, South Korea.  He tweets @iprav33n.