A fight for democracy

 Iftikhar Gilani

 Those desiring to become instant millionaire, visit South Korea, where a dollar fetches atleast 1300 won (local currency). But, if you are not adept in sign language, forget the venture. Your all mastery in so called lingua franca English will dissolve fast once you start conversing with a salesman or asking for directions on the road.


Despite a partner of United States, English is still an alien language in the land of global corporate giants Daweoo, LG, Samsung, Hyundai etc. The plumy purse also loses vanity fast as a normal meal in this Far Eastern country costs not less than 15000-18000 won. Taxi driver is not cocking a snook when demanding 5000-10,000 won for a short distance. An umbrella costs somewhat 80,000 to 100,000 won,  enough zeros to cause a heart failure.


The lush green mountainous country is a facsimile of Kashmir, not only in geography, but politically as well. Korea is divided into communist north and capitalist south. The Demilitrized Zone (DMZ) running through 38 parallel, the border between the two countries is a unique area, where tensions and peace have coexisted for over past 60-years. It serves as a buffer zone between the confronting ideologies.


Far away from Afghanistan and Kashmir, nearly 40-kms from capital Seoul, an eerie tension is building up at Panmunjeom, Korean border. South Korea is amassing troops and launching punitive actions against Communist North Korea.  The tensions are also threatening the future of Kaeseong joint industrial zone, which has been often touted as a model for India and Pakistan to build cooperative relationship along the LoC.  The tensions have erupted after a North Korean submarine torpedoed the 1,200 ton South Korean ship, killing over 50 sailors.


Almost a  replica of Operation Parakaram that India launched immediately in the aftermath of Decembe 13, 2001 parliament attacks against Pakistan, South Korean military divisions are marching  with tanks, artillery and an assortment of American weaponry towards borders coinciding the Seoul announcing retaliatory measures against its Northern peer. At the Itaewon US military base near Seoul, marines and commandos seem gearing up for an assault.


Tell tale signs of war clouds hovering over the far-east are glaring. Railway stations and bus stations in South Korea are full with young soldiers in their battle dresses, kissing and hugging their girl friends and bidding adieu to their families, a replica from a Wrold War-II movie. Leaves have been cancelled. Rumours are thick in Seoul that government was even drafting young men into the Army in an emergency.


At the Dorasan military station overlooking North Korea, a senior military officer with maps and sketches is briefing visiting Japanese delegation about South Korean plans. As visitors mostly western tourists were allowed inside the hall, I asked the officer, if his operations would be different from the Operation Parakaram, which failed to achieve any objective for India eight years ago, he looks stoic in my eyes with curt reply; he has not studied Indian operation.


South Korea has barred many nationalities visiting the Demilitrized Zone (DMZ) that includes West Asians, almost whole of North Africa, Afghans and the latest entry is Pakistanis as well. Almost all those having credentials of being anti-US. Indians are still friends as my guides agreed to take me to DMZ tour after they saw my Indian passport.


The Korean tension is also threatening the future of Kaesong Industrial complex, the last remaining inter-Korean reconciliatory business. But despite tensions, our beautiful guide Do Konya says, people will not allow this experiment to fail. “This is our only connection with our northern brothers,” she believes. With mist in her eyes, she points out beyond the barbed wires and alert soldiers blocking the view, to a village in North Korea, where from her parents had migrated by paying hefty bribe to security guards.


Analysts have often cited Kaesong as an apt model for India and Pakistan to begin a cooperative relationship across LoC in Kashmir. Set up in 2002 as a collaborative economic development, the industrial part is located ten kilometres inside North Korea housing 116 South Korean companies employing 42,000 North Korean low-wage  employees.


Despite introducing sanctions following sinking of its ship by a North Korean torpedo, which killed all the sailors on board, Seoul has refrained closing or scaling down cooperation at the Kaesong.


But still the tensions have cast shadow on the corss-border cooperation model as well. The Unification Ministry, which overlooks the park has sent safety guidelines to South Koreans at the industrial park advising them to refrain from making contact with North Korean officials, stop moving around unnecessarily, particularly at night,and not to carry South Korean newspapers, DVDs or printed North  Korean materials.  A government official said, "It is likely that the North will threaten South Korean staff in the industrial park when we introduce sanctions against them. We’re worried because we don’t have any good ideas to deal with this." A local analyst Kim So-Iyhen believes that without a political content in the relations, economic cooperation don’t last long, citing the case of Northern Ireland, where economic cooperation began after an political accord between Britain and Republic of Ireland.


Five hours from Soeul, deep in South, in the historic Gwangju city, an international meet is demanding revocation of draconian Armed Forces

Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Jammu and Kashmir and North-Eastern city of Manipur at a function commemorating May 18, 1980 Korean uprising against military dictatorship. Gwangju replicates Sopore in Korea, in terms of revolutionary zeal and political enlightenment. It is the biggest annual event of social moment activists, outside World Social Forum.


As participants from, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and other countries drew attention to the state and non-state repression against human rights defenders and media, the conference rejected all forms of state violence, not in accordance with democracy and human rights.“The demand to protect democracies under threat is strongly increasing among people in Asian societies. Aspirations for Asian solidarity action are fully matured now amongst civil society actors in Korea specifically and in Asian in general,” said the concluding statement.


Over past 11 years, South Korean government as well as the May 18 Foundation has been hosting democratic movements to attend the carnival that enlivens the memories of the brutally crushed uprising. But paved the way for the democratisation of South Korea seven years later and also showed path of democracy to East European countries and Philippines as well.  Local journalists believe that the city of Gwangju is a testimony to preserve democracy and freedom.  “We are

indebted to the inhabitants of this city. We inherited the fruits of democracy because of their sacrifices,” says a journalist Yi Jung.


The forum has so far awarded the prestigious $50,000 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights to two Indians– Irom Sharmila of Manipur, for her seven-year-long fast against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and Lenin Raghuvanshi of Utter Pradesh (UP), for fighting child and bonded labour and untouchability.


Every year Koreans remember the May 18 uprising to uphold democracy and human rights. Three decades ago, civilians and students in Gwangju, a city of 1.4 million souls marched through the streets, fuelled by anger at military abuses of power. They were mowed down by the military regime using tanks and helicopter gunships. The movement, however, led first democratic presidential elections in 1987 and also provided a way to major revolutions in Eastern Europe and Philippines.


“The 1980 civilian protests were crucial example of how people power could end authoritarian rule in Asia, helping to inspire a major revolutions,” says Kim Dong-kym, executive editor of local JoongAng

Daily. Atleast the movement demonstrated that after all stones are heavier than bullets to secure rights from despots. A lesson for those using violence against violence.


Foundation Chairman Honggil Rhee believes there was need of an Asian solidarity and a new mantra for human rights. He witnessed 1980. At 39 and a history professor at a local university, he saw tanks mowing down young people gathered at the city centre. Helicopters firing at unarmed civilians. Dead bodies being stashed in garbage trucks and taken for mass burial.  “They thought they could crush the movement for democracy and set an example. It back-fired because of the people’s resilience. We learnt many things from the rising. We have to constantly fight to get and retain democracy. These were the highest form of sacrifices and we just can’t afford to forget that,” he said.


The official death count of the Gwangju massacre is 207. The unofficial runs in the 2,000 plus figure. There are many who have still not been identified. Many students died fighting. There is no trace of missing. At the cemetery which was build after the return of democratic government after exhuming dead bodies from a mass burial ground has 481 graves. There are many space left out for those yet to be discovered. “We are still looking for dead bodies.” Next to every grave, there are vases of flowers, neatly arranged, a message and name on the little monument, and a framed photograph of the rebel: girls, boys, elders, and workers. The May 18 is definitely a lesson, not to forget those, who gave up their present for your tomorrow.