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May 18 Academy Reflections

May 18 Academy Report

Activists of human rights, democracy attend 2018 May 18 Academy

Gianna Francesca M. Catolico
Gianna Francesca Catolico is an international intern at the May 18 Memorial Foundation. She recently finished her Master’s in Human Rights and Democratization from Mahidol University in Thailand and has engaged with a multitude of NGOs working for disability rights, elections, and press freedom in Asia.
A total of 26 human rights defenders from 15 different countries participated in this year’s May 18 Academy, which took place in the cities of Seoul, Gwangju, and Jeju. The two-week workshop, the fourteenth one since its birth in 2004, spanned from September 3 to 17, with participants staying in Seoul for four days while two days and eight days were scheduled in Jeju and Gwangju, respectively.

Launching Ceremony in Seoul

The first leg of the May 18 Academy kicked off with a silent tribute to the martyrs of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. Participants watched a video clip about the history of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, including the trial of Chun Doo-hwan and first-hand footage of the movement. Later in the afternoon, participants were divided into six groups to discuss the most pressing human rights issues in their respective countries. The insights gathered during this session aided them in their group presentations at the end of the workshop.

The first lecture, titled ‘Human Rights in Asia’, was presented by Anselmo Lee, Senior Adviser and former Secretary General of the Asia Democracy Network. He discussed about the democratization trends in Asia and how these historical events shaped the current human rights dilemma in the region. Francis Daehoon Lee, lecturer at SungKongHoe University presented about other democratic movements that transpired in the country. His lecture revolved on the situation of the two Koreas during the Cold War and how the United States influenced and bolstered South Korea’s military capabilities up to present times.

During the second day of the Academy, Participants visited several key historical sites in the capital such as the Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, and the Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the afternoon, participants toured around the Blue House (or Cheongwadae), the official residence of President Moon Jae-in.

The next day, participants visited the Imjingak Resort, a historical site locating seven kilometers away from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Moreover, the participants toured other landmarks situated near the border, such as Dorasan Railway Station, Bridge of Freedom, Dora Observatory, and Third Tunnel of Aggression.

Highlights in Gwangju

In their first day in Gwangju, the participants visited the 518 Museum and the old Jeonnam Provincial Office. In the afternoon, they visited the 518 National Cemetery and Mr. Kim Chan-ho of the Gwangju Trauma Center served as their guide. A welcome dinner was hosted for the participants and staff. Mr. Jo Jintea, Executive Director of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, Mr. Lee Chulwoo, Chairperson of the Foundation, and Mr. Lee Gibong, Secretary General of the Foundation, graced the said event.

On September 7, GNMP graduates Stephie Melina Kabre, Don Tajaroerensuk, Shahed Kayes, and Dinesh KC presented about their graduate research projects and other issues relevant to human rights. A lecture titled ‘The spreading of distorted facts about the May 18 and the reacting of Gwangju Citizens’ was presented by Mr. Jung-eun Kim, Associate Professor at the Department of History at Chonnam National University.

In the next day, Ms. Yang Youngmi, member of Planning Committee for the May 18 Memorial Foundation and member of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, delivered a lecture about the role of civil society organizations in harnessing cross-border relations. Some of the vital points she mentioned were Korea’s efforts to protect female migrant workers and human rights defenders from developing countries.

For the rest of the day, several participants from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Burkina Faso, and Jordan presented about the human rights and democratization challenges in their respective countries and the various programs and initiatives of their respective organizations.

On September 9th, participants took a break and visited the Gwangju Biennale, a two-month long exhibit located at the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. The theme of the exhibit is ‘Imagined Borders’ and masterpieces illustrating both dystopian and utopian concepts of communities were hosted.

The remaining participants, chiefly from Nepal, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Pakistan, and Thailand, delivered their respective presentations the next day. During the afternoon, Ms. Jung Hyun-ae, Representative Director of the May Mother’s House, delivered a lecture entitled “The May 18 Democratic Uprising (In and around Nokdu Bookstore)”. Nokdu Bookstore, which opened in the 1970s, served as a place where pro-democracy figures socialized before the Gwangju Uprising and later, serve as a haven for activists to plan their struggles.

Next day’s session commenced with a lecture by Mr. Kim Jong-ryul, General Secretary of the Gwangju Cultural Foundation. His presentation focused on the historical timeline of Korean music, including the popular May 18 Uprising protest song ‘Marching for your Beloved’. Mr. Kim joyfully coached participants in singing ‘March for your Beloved’. Later in the afternoon, Mr. Choi Yong-ju, Senior Researcher and the May 18 Memorial Foundation and faculty member at Chonnam National University delivered a lecture entitled ‘Democracy in South Korea: From the Gwangju Uprising to the Candlelight Protest’. After the lectures, participants donned their cultural attire and participated in a graduation photoshoot.

In the evening, participants watched ‘A Taxi Driver’, a documentary film set in the period of the Gwangju Uprising. The film’s plot unfolded the experiences of Jürgen ‘Peter’ Hinzpeter, a German journalist who covertly witnessed the May 18 Democratization movement. During his perilous trip to cover the massacre, he was ushered by a Seoul taxi driver who emerged as a hero in his unique way.

The Two-Day Jeju Excursion

Staff and participants flew to Jeju for a two-day visit organized by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation. The first stop was at the Peace Park, where the participants commemorated and offered prayers to those who sacrificed their lives during the April 3 Uprising. The tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 30,000 people, stemmed from the staunch opposition of Jeju locals to the country’s division during the Korean War. Then they visited the graves of the massacre victims. Likewise, participants attended a brief lecture by Ms. Baek Gayoon, co-founder of Jeju Dark Tours. For the second half of the Jeju tour, participants visited the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park and Museum and Bukchon Village, one of the most-ravaged villages during the Jeju Uprising. For the rest of the time, participants visited exquisite sites in Jeju, such as the Geumneung Beach and Iho Taewoo Beach. The participants returned to Gwangju in the evening.

The Final Days of the May 18 Academy

In the morning, the participants visited the Gwangju Trauma Center and explored its facilities and programs. The Gwangju Trauma Center is a healing facility for survivors of state violence and torture and their families, including survivors of Gwangju Uprising. Mr. Kim Chan-ho and other staff members of the center were present in this activity. In the afternoon, Ms. Chun-hee Lee, Director of the Women’s Resource Development Center, gave a presentation about the vital role of women during the May 18 Democratic Uprising.

Ms. Hermien Kleden, Senior Editor and Media Mentor at Indonesian news outlet Tempo Media, discussed about Indonesia’s Reformasi (Reformation) Movement and commemoration of the Gwangju Declaration of the Asian Human Rights Charter. At nighttime, a dinner and talent show was organized and both staff and participants showcased their inner knacks for singing and dancing.

On September 15, Mr. Lee Kwangsu, Board Director of the May 18 Memorial Foundation and lecturer at Busan University of Foreign Studies gave a presentation about Orientalism and the socio-political challenges brought by Western colonization in Asia.

The last two days of the May 18 Academy was devoted to the group presentations of participants, who were already divided into six groups. Group 1 presented about the challenges faced by Rohingya and Syrian refugees through videos depicting the crises. Moreover, Group 2 presented about freedom of expression in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Malaysia, and Indonesian region of Papua. By performing a role play, Group 3 focused on religious tolerance and freedom of religion in countries such as Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Group 4 focused on gender issues like gender segregation, gender-based violence, and the prevalence of patriarchal societies around the globe. They created a video featuring the interviews of participants and staff about participation of women in government and other pressing issues in their respective countries. Meanwhile, Group 5 focused on workers’ rights and the impact of business activities on the rights of workers. Similar to the previous groups, Group 6 focused on shrinking political spaces and the status of freedom of expression in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nepal. Majority of the groups mentioned about the current threats human rights defenders face in protecting ethnic minorities and marginalized groups in the society.


Two participants - Ms. Elma Demir from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ms. Fatima Al-Khadire from Jordan – stayed with their host families living in Gwangju on September 15. They returned to the Education Center following their one-night stay with their respective host families.


The May 18 Academy wrapped up with a formal graduation ceremony where all participants were given a certificate. Present in the commencement exercise were Mr. Jo Jintea and Ms. You Inrae, Director of the International Affairs Department. Elma, Fatima, and Alingwi Jean de Dieu from Congo were recognized as exceptional students of the batch.

They May 18 Academy is an intensive educational program for human rights and democracy activists from Asia and Africa. Since its inception in 2004, over 293 NGO workers and activists from over 50 countries participated and graduated in the program. Every year, the Foundation selects around 20 invitees and immerses them in study trips in Gwangju and other cities and introduces them to different Korean organizations and scholars in the field of human rights and democracy. The two-week workshop proved to be fruitful and successful in its aim to congregate human rights defenders and activists who are passionate about championing democracy in their countries.