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May 18 Academy Reflections

Gwangju Uprising: Lessons for Pakistan

Saima Gull, Pakistan
Ms. Gull holds a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the National Defense University in Pakistan. She has been working in the development sector since last ten years, varying from project coordination to management. Since 2009, she has been working for the Centre for Social Policy Development (CSPD) as the Program Coordinator for the projects about mobilization and capacity building of youth for socio-political and economic transformation of society. Previously, she served as a sub-editor for the Labour Education Foundation (LEF).
Last September, I was one of the participants of the May 18 Academy. During the academy, I thoroughly observed South Korea’s efforts towards democratization. The Academy has provoked me to write this piece on the prevailing issues of democracy, human rights, and peace between South Korea and my homeland, Pakistan.

Gwangju Uprising

South Korea has a long history of struggle and sufferings, behind the attainment of a certain level of democracy, especially the credit goes to the citizens, youth, and student community of Gwangju for standing up against the dictatorial regime of General Chun Doo-hwan. The world knows the popular uprising known as the Gwangju Uprising or the May 18 Democratization Movement. The said uprising continued for ten days and around 200 civilians, including policemen and military personnel, lost their lives during the event. The movement emerged as the dawn of South Korean democracy.

The citizens of Gwangju and student activists of Chonnam National University were blamed for posing as North Korean agents. However, the consistent determination and struggle of Gwangju citizens and students have recomposed the South Korean society into a democratic and progressive one.

Nearly four decades have passed and the people of Gwangju commemorated the Uprising by building monuments, sculptures, museums, education centers, exhibition halls, and archive libraries across Gwangju. Aside from commemorating the sacrifices of the Gwangju Uprising, these memorabilia are used to educate and sensitize the Korean youth about the bloody history of the Uprising. Since the Gwangju was the epicenter of the Uprising, there are a variety of sculptures, monuments, and memorials in the city to depict the brutalities of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan and his military troops. Yet, the South Korean army does not consider the events as mediums of insult and humiliation to its institution. They have evolved itself as a supporter of democracy and I did not see any sign of the military’s influence socio-political and economic spheres of the country.

Based on the 2017 Democracy Index, South Korea was the only Asian country in the list, while all other Asian states were positioned below in the ranking list, such as Japan, Taiwan, and India.

Relevance to Pakistan’s Situation

We are breathing in the environment of undeclared martial law while the rest of the world perceives that a democratically-elected government is functioning in Pakistan. The recent-held General Elections was another eyewash as military agencies were manipulating the entire electoral process to implant their likeminded politicians into the parliament.

Blaming the pro-democracy activists is a traditional formula of non-democratic forces, which is akin to the May 18 Democratization Movement. If any person, group, or organization protests in response to these kinds of wrongdoing of Pakistani military, they would definitely be declared Indian spies or threats to national security.

It is an open secret that the military bureaucracy of Pakistan has now become a dominant entity, which controlled democracy and maneuvered the country’s internal affairs. Out of 71 years of Pakistan’s existence, the military directly ruled over the country for 36 years through the imposition of martial laws after carrying out coups, the toppling the democratically-elected governments, and manipulation of the judicial system and other socio-economic affairs. Whenever any of the civilians, CSOs, pro-democracy activists, journalists, writers, academics, or students criticize the military’s role in creating instability in South Asia, they can become a target of intelligence agencies and are susceptible to violence, public scrutiny, harassments, intimidation, and enforced disappearances, among others.

There are a bulk of reports and evidence about the suppression of pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders. Currently, CSOs in Pakistan are experiencing a severe crackdown for raising their voices against human rights violations, poor governance, counter-terrorism policy and shrinking of civic spaces. Print and electronic media in the country are plagued with censorship whilst the Pakistani military utilizes enforced disappearance to suppress dissenting voices. There are 1,532 pending cases with the Commission of Inquiries on Enforced Disappearances at the beginning of 2018 and 116 more cases were registered in February 20181.

Korean Reunification vs Pakistan-India Relations

One of the noteworthy memories of my childhood academic readings about East Asian history was the division of Korea during the Korean War. Certainly, this incident was the outcome of the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and United States. During that time, both Korean governments did not acknowledge each other’s legitimacy.

During the field trip, I and other participants visited the Demilitarized Zone and thoroughly observed the remains of war and the intensity of hostility between North and South Korea. At the same time, I could not neglect the urge of South Korean people for peace and peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The situation has gradually improved as a joint team of North and South Korean athletes have recently participated in Winter Olympics and Asian Games as a symbol of unity, solidarity, and friendship.

Wars and conflicts between countries hinder the growth of economy and human development process. The existing situation reveals that the North Korean leadership has realized the significance of peace and therefore, opted for the initiation of dialogues for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

It was a pleasant surprise when the entire international media was telecasting the news and footages of Inter-Korean Summit, held at the Joint Security Area of DMZ. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are now negotiating for peacebuilding, disarmament, and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It seems that sooner or later, the current peace process will result in the reunification of Korea.

Similarly, within the South Asian region, relations between India and Pakistan are quite complex and largely hostile because of a number of historical and political reasons. Both countries have gone through four full-scale wars and consequently, bilateral relations have been plagued by continuous hostility and suspicion. It is another dilemma that two neighbouring nuclear states are continuously involved in an undeclared war in the forms of terrorist activities, border skirmishes, and military standoffs. The prevailing unfriendliness is damaging the peace and security of the region, alongside weakening of the human and economic development processes. Unfortunately, Pakistan is spending 80 percent of its total annual budget on building arsenals and strengthening its military power.

Indeed, peace between India and Pakistan is the prerequisite for achieving economic stability and human development in South Asia. The resources of both countries can be spent on the social sector to cope with the issues of poverty, health, education, housing, and food security, rather than purchasing arms and ammunition.

In the past, efforts were made at both governmental and civil society levels to normalize the relationship between India and Pakistan. While both governments were involved in bilateral talks for the peaceful resolution of conflicts, civil society organizations (CSOs) made efforts to strengthen people-to-people contacts for the advancement of the peace movement. Of course, CSOs in India and Pakistan, in the forms of peace networks and regional alliances, are playing crucial roles in coping with the phenomenon of unpleasantness, mistrust, and antagonism, to turn the dream of peacebuilding into reality.

Both Pakistani and Indian governments and CSOs can learn from the recuperating relations between North and South Korea. We, the Pakistani people, are paying a heavy price in the region because of India’s militaristic, territorial and economic domination in the South Asian region, along with continuous changes in strategic priorities. Our ruling elite is compelled to opt in making Pakistan a national security state. Thus, gradually, we witnessed a growth in our military and they started interfering into socio-political affairs of Pakistan, particularly in the name of national security and defense.


Except for very few countries, the rest of the region of Asia, home of more than half of the world’s population, is living under the firm grip of autocracy, aristocracy, military rule, or perhaps a flawed democracy. The term ‘flawed democracy’ is meant for the situation, in which elected governments are functioning under the strong influence and control of military bureaucracy, monarchs or politburos. There are a variety of examples about the non-existence of genuine democracy, within Asian region, ranging from, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, China, and North Korea, to Nepal, Vietnam, and Laos, Cambodia, and Arab countries. Of course, democracy is not just a composition of free and fair elections; ensuring the rule of the civilian majority and placing emphasis on a pluralistic society with civil liberties, freedom of speech, a functioning government, and high political participation are a must under a democratic rule. Majority of the Asian population does not have certain types of ‘privileges’ as manifested in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The indicators of democracy and human rights2, by and large, are similar in most of the Asian countries, particularly in terms of armed conflicts, wobbling political structure, separatists’ movements and bizarre kind of power politics between the monarchy, clergy, military, and civilian political leadership. A careful review and analysis of existing political systems, one can easily categorize the governments of Asian countries into full-democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian governments. Only South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and up to some extent, India, have set robust examples about the deliverance of good governance, through ensuring democracy and political stability, within the countries. All of aforementioned nations have now emerged as vibrant economies with responsive and robust civil societies.

Finally, the May 18 Memorial Foundation has also played an extraordinary role in the diffusion of the Gwangju Uprising spirit within South Korea and around the world. Gwangju is now known as the city of democracy and human rights. I am of the view that same kind of spirit is required to ensure protection and recognition of human rights in Pakistan. Despite having difficult circumstances, CSOs must reorganize itself in order to streamline the democratic movement and to cope with the existing situation in Pakistan. The Gwangju-type determination and commitment is needed to motivate, educate, and sensitize the Pakistani youth for countering the militarization of our socio-political structure.

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