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May 18 Academy Reflections

Democratic Movements in South Korea: Lessons for Successful Social Movements

Alingwi Jean de Dieu, Democratic Republic of Congo
Mr. de Dieu is a conflict transformation and civil resistance movements trainer and consultant. Based in Uganda, he is working with ActionAid International. He is a graduate of English and African Culture from Institut Supérieur Pédagogique (ISP) in Goma, DRC, and completed a graduate certificate in conflict transformation at the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Vermont, United States. He has previously worked with the International Centre for Transitional Justice in Congo and Nonviolent Peace Force in South Sudan.
Firstly, my heartfelt condolences go to the human rights defenders and their families who lost their loved ones and are brutalized as a result of the excessive use of force by state authorities. The violent scenarios continue to play and are playing out in different regions of the world including Africa, Asia, and Europe. Reports of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, tortures, rapes, sexual assaults, molestations, and extortions of civil society activists and citizens who attempted to speak up are commonplace in oppressive and military dictatorships. Such acts of terror and intimidation show that democratic or resistance movements are challenging and daunting because as we struggle to demand social justice and peace while others work assiduously to terrorize and murder their citizens to maintain power.

Secondly, using democratic movements as an avenue for social change and democracy is really difficult, painful, and complex as described in the Gwangju Uprising experience. Yet, it is desirable in moving society towards reconciliation. We have always believed that changes and reforms cannot happen without mounting pressure on power holders and that living in passivity toward abuses and other oppressive or ugly acts does not guarantee civil liberties, social justice, and peaceful coexistence among the citizens. This is one of the first key insights I grabbed during The May 18 Academy 2018 held in September in South Korea.

Through the Academy, we had a great opportunity to visit the amazing memorial and historical sites in Gwangju, Jeju, and Seoul and pay tribute to the great departed souls who laid down their lives for Korean democracy. With this, we have had the opportunity to meet, build relationships, and learn from the amazing professors, staff, and volunteers who worked with the May 18 Memorial Foundation. Their experience, in-depth knowledge, and testimonies about the Gwangju Uprising and the Jeju 4.3 Movement were not only inspiring but also emotional. They gave us the opportunity to assert our own identities as necessary subjects to achieve social change and justice through self-determination and our capacity to build people’s participation and leadership within our communities and countries.

Although there are numerous challenges and risks associated with pro-democratic movements, there are important factors that contributed to the success and suitability of the democratic movements in South Korea and these can inspire other activists and citizens from other countries struggling with similar issues. The existence of social, political, and economic injustices or violations of people’s rights always justify the being or emerging of movements. The May 18 Democratic Uprising was built on the spirit of active democracy movements that occurred in Jeollanam-do, such as the Donghak peasant revolution, the Honam Righteous Army Uprising, the widespread farm tenancy disputes, and the Gwangju students’ anti-Americanism protests.

These movements were formed due to the unequal development of the province and the sense of alienation that residents had to suffer as a result of the so-called Yushin (revitalization reforms) system by the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship back then. However, while movements in Jeollanam-do faced challenges because of division by generation gap, the Gwangju Uprisings was solidified as participants naturally united and took the streets. Their capacity to define, articulate, and refine their objectives and goals and at the same time, stay united, remains remarkable in the struggle to establish democracy in the country.

Looking back to the context of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and also across many countries in Africa, broad, cross-cutting constituencies like religious groups, student groups, labor unions, business groups, women’s groups, and other such grassroots organizations are absent from movements or rather they are internally divided, with parts of their leadership being co-opted by the government and yet, they are the groups that could form a hub of resistance on specific issues.

No matter how it is presented, DRC’s transition from the oppressive and brutal regime is needed to establish the foundations for the peaceful transition of power, equal opportunity, and shared prosperity. This is possible if as citizens we can also shift from agonizing on social and other media to organizing a national, grassroots anchored democratic movement for political and social change. Congolese and other fellow Africans have more to learn from Koreans to be a lot more successful in the struggle for social justice and democracy. To achieve this, the groups must unite and rise above their big personal egos and political party logos. Civil society must get out of their comfort zones and join the struggle for democracy.

The government of Chun Doo-hwan and paramilitary troops used intimidation and acts of terror to discourage expression of outrage and destroy movement reputations and credibility. The May 18 Uprising participants were associated with the common image of brutal, aggressive, dangerous and fanatical communists, to discredit them and to justify repression in the name of saving the country from the threat and attacks of communists and rebellion riots.

Not everyone could be able to resist that in the context of Korea at that time. But due to their courage and determination and their capacity to win over own individual and collective fear and accept and take risks for the sake of the cause, the participants in the May 18 Democratic Uprising were able to resist and send a powerful message, encouraging many people to participate. With the May 18 experience, we have learned that resistance can occur in even the most repressive situations and contexts, including in the most brutal and oppressive regimes.

The Gwangju citizens not only proved their courage, commitment and determination to resist oppressive military and dictatorship regimes but also proved they have more experience with uprisings. It was noticeable that the May 18 Democratization Movement ignited the floundering of successive pro-democracy movements including the June Uprising in 1987 when the people's power movement finally broke the power of the South Korean military regime and the 2016 Candlelight Movement, which led to the fall of President Park Geun-hye’s regime in 2016. Their capacity to influence the change in position of the United States government was in itself a paradigm shift as, later on in 1986, both the US and South Korea governments had no more choice than accommodate to the needs and aspiration of the people.

The participants in these movements appeared to be well prepared and organized. They made proper planning in terms of adaptable and adoptable mechanics in responding to arrests, injured, and killings, to name a few. Activists group members and student activists coalesced and sorted out information, published newsletters, and discussed countermeasures.

Every participant’s role, whether small or big, contributed to the movement and its impact in shaping Korean history. Young and old women alike cooked food for the protesters, distributed pamphlets, donated blood, collected stones, and made firebombs. Other people contributed to the movement by publishing newsletters (by night schools members), collecting dead bodies in the streets, administering first aid, to name a few.

Particular to the May 18 Democratic Uprising was the importance to gather information and keep records of what happened. Often, oppressive regimes become too reckless and zealous because they use excessive force against innocent people and spread distorted information. It is critical to be fully prepared to collect and keep information of abuses being committed like snipers brutalizing and scaring off those involved. This information can be very useful in exposing the injustices and abuse and diminishing and weakening the credibility of the regime.

The information assembled from different archives and narratives from survivors and witnesses during the Uprising helped counter false narratives nourished by the regime. It helped in revealing the truth about what really happened to the national and international public, which later contributed to the recognition of individuals who sacrificed their lives and were innocently killed.

We visited the May 18 National Cemetery where victims were reburied and honoured. Another notable factor is the discipline of the protesters. Numbers, diversity of participation, and nonviolent discipline matters in every democratic movement. However, in the case of movements in South Korea, the May 18 Democratic Uprising was not peaceful but yielded success, a contrast to the existing empirical data that nonviolent discipline increases the likelihood of success.

The use of guns and untoward violence to unarmed civilians is a clear example of excessive use of force by the paramilitary troops of the Chun Doo-hwan regime. According to the Foundation’s Senior Researcher Yong-Ju Choi, there is a correlation between the excessive use of force by the state and the possibility of citizens to resort to violence. By comparing the three movements in South Korea (Gwangju Uprising, June Uprising, and the Candlelight Movement), he arrived at a conclusion that the higher the state violence, the higher citizen resort to violence, and the lower the state violence, the more peaceful is the citizen uprising.

Although participants of May 18 Democratic Uprising used violence, there was no case of major acts of destruction targeting properties and cases of theft among people in Gwangju. In cases of the uprisings in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries in Africa, reports could have been issued stating the number of facilities destroyed, shops looted, petrol stations destroyed, among others.

This could demonstrate the intent by resistors in preventing and reducing the harm inflicted by the enemy, instead of creating chaos. Particular to the May 18 Democratic Uprising was decentralized leadership. Research has proved that during movements, centralized leadership is often vulnerable to the repression by authoritarian regimes. Throughout history, movement leaders have been killed, arrested, politically neutralized (cooptation, ridicule, accusations of scandal, etc.). The leadership system in the May 18 Democratization Movement made it more difficult for the paramilitary troops to decide where to concentrate their efforts to stop the movement as low-profile leaders went undetected. Despite the injuries, arrests, and deaths, the movement continued. This proves that the participants in the May 18 Democratization Movement were highly organized in a way that they provided important information to the people of Gwangju and offered them with concrete and immediate opportunities for meaningful participation. The citizens’ rally held on May 23 aimed at encouraging participation and collect popular opinion on the struggle is one of the examples of opportunities they used to empower everyone and take leadership at the next level.

To describe what we achieved by spending two weeks in South Korea, the best answer for me would be: “We achieved justification and reaffirmation of everything we believe in as human rights defenders and civil society activists. We learned that change comes only when pressure is mounted on power-holders and achieving democracy requires sacrifices.” In matters of creating change, we traditionally rely on three things: the government in place, the political opposition, and the civil society when all else fails.

Thanks to the May 18 Academy, the understanding of the fourth way was reinforced. When the civil society cannot fulfill its role of speaking on behalf of the people, consequently, the young generation feels stifled. Citizens have to create an autonomous way to be heard and challenge the status quo. They chose to stand up and speak on behalf of themselves for whatever cost it entails. We also believe that with the new tools, confidence boost, and energy that have been given to us, we will keep acting locally while thinking globally to promote and nurture international solidarity created during the May 18 Academy.

However, it is interesting that one of the critical aspects of my stay in South Korea was meeting other human right activists from different parts of the globe, including Europe, Asia, and Africa. We have built strategic alliances as part of the international solidarity wing. We have built friendships and relationships that would last a lifetime with the Academy participants. The relationships built with these people are invaluable and I am excited at the possibilities of what we could achieve together with previous alumni as part of the international solidarity going forward. The connection among us, knowledge resources, and exposure to the historical cultural heritage of Korea will contribute to our personal transformation and be able to inspire and motivate others in our work.