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And The May Uprising Continues………………

By Mathew Jacob

20 May, 2014

A couple of weeks back, the entire city was blooming with cherry blossoms all around making it picturesque. The spring had set in and people had set out of their homes with their families and friends. As the temperatures soared in later days and the cherry blossoms disappeared, the entire city started blooming in remembrance of the brave women and men of Gwangju, responsible for sowing the seeds of democracy in the Republic of Korea while opposing the infamous martial law and dictatorship. Ten days, starting from May 18, 1980, they made the streets theirs, challenging the might of the State. As the historic May Democratic Uprising is witnessing its 34 th anniversary, Gwangju is celebrating and reminding herself to keep the memory of resistance alive, resistance against oppression and injustice that their heroes had upheld.

Gwangju might be lesser known to many when compared with the world class city Seoul, but it has managed to build the conscience of the later through its passionate appeals and regular quest for justice. Gwangju is among the few cities in the world which truly acknowledges the fruits of the struggles and strives to preserve the memories. As the unrest spreads across the globe with the States coming down aggressively on their citizens, Gwangju has the onus on herself to keep the torch of revolution alive and inspire the struggles for justice.

Resistances, rebellions and revolutions are common across many of the Asian countries. Most of these countries have struggled constantly with the idea of building a nation which guarantees equality and justice. It is clearly not because of the dark dead roads or the lack of vision but due to active civil society engagement at various levels, which rightly challenged the powers vested in the State. Can the civil societies struggling to uphold justice and human rights look eastwards towards Gwangju and draw inspirations? Certainly yes, because Gwangju teaches us that the fight for justice and condemnation of the State power in itself are not the only true elements of any revolution, and for it to be successful it is imperative that the oppressors are prosecuted and the marchers are provided true recognition in the national history. Gwangju teaches us that a nation can only be built on the pillars which recognize the aspirations of its youth, recognition of its working class, opportunities for the marginalized and equality among all its citizen.

The roots of the unrest date back to October 26, 1979 with the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, December 12, 1979 coup by Chun Doo-Hwan's military junta and declaration of martial laws.  This also marked the coming to power of Korea's Fifth Republic which had stains of violence and repression, countered by demonstration and resistance in large cities and provinces, clashes between the police and students, and arbitrary detention of the leaders. There was one message flowing all across Korea – ‘Political Freedom'. Though there were strong revolts in various cities, Gwangju became the centre of the fiercest demonstrations and to counter this, the military regime declared Operation Choongjung (True Heart) which saw heavy deployment of armed military personnel.

For Gwangju, the capital of Jeonnam province, it all started on May the 18 th of 1980. If it was not for the brave students of the Chonnam National University, the voice would have hardly echoed this aloud which sent down chill shivers through the spine of the Korean State and the infamous military regime. The student union shifted their focus from campus democratization to national political change, thereby sowing the first seed of the uprising and called for complete withdrawal of emergency martial laws by the 14 th of May. No response from the military regime forced around 50,000 students to occupy the streets on the 15 th and 16 th of May. The students were later joined by their professors and other citizens of Gwangju. All the activities were suspended on the 17 th and 18 th of May awaiting government's response to their demands. What they were unaware about was that the military regime was moving in for an armed response.

Protest at the Provincial Hall in Gwangju

The deployment of armed forces made the students come out again in protest, thereby suspending the earlier time given to the government to withdraw martial laws. The first encounter was between the armed forces and 100 students protesting through songs and slogans in front of the Chonnam National Universities front gate. The students were driven back, but only to regroup in larger numbers, not large enough to confront the armed forces, and marched towards the Provincial Hall. They were brutally beaten and tortured by the men in uniform. With more military being deployed, apprehension amongst the citizens grew and combined with the reaction of attacks on peacefully protesting students, saw the number of protestors swelling to a couple of lakhs. Photographic images of citizens moving in with buses and cars, with their headlights on and waving the Korean national flag, catches the mood on the streets. In no means, this could be described anything less than the struggle for a true independence.

The entire city came to a standstill. There were women cooking ju-meak-bab (rice cakes) for the protestors, leaflets prepared by the night class teachers were distributed, hospitals were over crowded with people donating blood for the injured, vendors deserted their jobs to join the uprising, government media building set on fire for biased reporting, income-tax building destroyed alleging that citizen's tax money was used to buy weapons to kill the citizens. The first shots were fired on the protestors on the famous Geumnam-ro – the street of liberation. The protestors were arrested, stripped and tortured. Dead bodies were dumped in the trucks. 21 st of May, precisely at 1 PM in the afternoon, the national anthem being broadcast from the roof of the Provincial Hall, the protestors observing silence and respect, and suddenly the next ten minutes witnessed the most cowardice act from the armed forces when they fired from close ranges. This led to the formation of the Gwangju Citizen's Army and they equipped themselves with the carbines and weapons stolen from police stations.

The citizen's army took charge of the Provincial Hall and forced the armed forces to retreat. Provincial Hall was now announced as the citizen's headquarters. The air carried with it a fresh sense of triumph and a symbolic victory for the citizen's army which consisted of students, labourers, doctors, vendors etc. Two committees were formed of students and citizens, with responsibilities ranging from funeral, administration, traffic control, weapon collection and most importantly now negotiating for withdrawal of martial laws after attaining level playing field. The bodies of the martyrs were wrapped in the Korean flag and a seven point demand list was submitted to the regime. Unfortunately, the committees were divided between hardliners and moderates. The regime discarded the demands and pressed for immediate disarmament. This led to the formation of Gwangju Citizen's Fighting Committee. The mood of Gwangju however was not moderate and the city pushed for complete withdrawal of martial laws, the genesis of the uprising. There are little doubts over the fact that US, as it has done in other parts of the world, was backing the military regime and actively supporting through various inputs.

On 26 th May, the troops started marching again in Gwangju and the peace was soon fading away with the perceived state of emergency. The clarion call was given by two young women – “My fellow citizens, the army is entering our city now. Our dear brothers and sister are being killed by their guns and bayonets. We will fight against the army to the last. Let's fight together to the last. We will defend out Gwangju to the last. Please remember us…!

As the brave men and women laid down their lives and lost the ground to the armed forces, the city of Gwangju carried on the battle for years to come which eventually saw democracy in Korea. In June 1988, with the advent of the Sixth Republic, the uprising in Gwangju was truly acknowledged as the Gwangju Democratic Movement. During the 13 th National Assembly, the hearing on the brutal armed suppression started and was televised nationally. The then President Kim Young-Sam announced that the bloodshed of Gwangju in May, 1980 is the cornerstone of Korea's democracy. The Supreme Court termed it as ‘People's Rebellion' and to set the history straight a new 5.18 Law was enacted. Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, former president and military general respectively, were convicted for the armed killings of May 1980.

The long campaign for democratization by Gwangju ensured recognition and respect to those who were martyred and those who survived. Gwangju made sure that the revolution is remembered and lived in the full spirit. The subway stations, subways, buses, hoardings, foundations, memorials, archives, parks, cemetery and many other daily encounters portray the heroics of the past. For anyone who visits or hears about Gwangju will surely come across the May 1980. There was an epic sense of humanitarian cooperation and solidarity during the uprising as everyone contributed in some form or the other.

The May 18 Democratic Cemetery is where the heroes reside. The cemetery has two wings. The first wing is of the people who lost their lives during the uprising. A vas of white flowers, a framed photograph and the name board is placed in front every grave. The mere glimpse of companions and family members visiting them with food and soju (local drink) is heart wrenching. The second wing contains just the tributes and names but no graves. These are the disappeared during the uprising. At the old cemetery, where the bodies were buried earlier and later shifted to the May 18 Democratic Cemetery, at the entrance there is a stone with the name of Chun Doo Hwan, which while entering is stamped symbolizing the anger, agony and pain till today. Every year on May 18, Gwangju reunites here. This is the 34 th anniversary of the uprising, and the undercurrents of a new resistance can now be felt.

The May 18 Democratic Cemetery

The song ‘March for My Love', if it can be called the Gwangju anthem, unites the city with the uprising in the true spirit. It was composed by Kim Jongryul in 1981 to celebrate the soul wedding of the young worker Yoon Sangwoon who lost his life while trying to protect the Provincial Hall and Park Gisoon who lost her life while leading “Deulbul Night School”. He himself underwent hardship and torture for this. A song commonly hummed by the old and young of the city, creates an aura of belief and determination to resist State power. A revolutionary song in all senses, it is played and sung during the commemorative ceremony every May 18 th . During the 2013 commemorative ceremony, presided by the President herself, the song was played but the citizens were asked to resist from singing. It didn't go down well at all with Gwangju and these were the first signs of a more organized resistance. This year too, the State has asked the citizens not to sing the song, which has challenged them to resist this act of the State and show their discontent.

On May 18 Gwangju citizens defied the dictates by the State and sang aloud again just as their heroes did. Thousands occupied the street of liberation and marched down singing and rejoicing the democracy, which only came after bloodshed. This May 18 the chants have grown stronger. The May 18, 1980 is not merely a date in history for the citizens of Gwangju and Korea but a reminder to resist all forms of injustices.

Mathew Jacob currently works with the May 18 Memorial Foundation in Gwangju, South Korea. He can be reached at mathewjaacob@gmail.com .



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