The May 18, 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement occupies a special place in the annals of the world’s great people’s uprisings against authoritarianism and for democracy. It was the culmination of a series of huge mass protests all over South Korea against the repressive military regime of General Chun Doo-hwan who had come to power through a coup d’etat and imposed martial law to suppress any opposition. Over 100,000 citizens of Gwangju city rose up demanding democracy, labor rights and freedom of the press.
The Chun Doo-hwan regime unleashed a bloodbath to suppress the uprising, calling it a Communist-inspired rebellion, instigated by Kim Dae-Jung, who later went on to become Korea’s president and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Hundreds of protestors were killed and went missing. Thousands were wounded and arrested, and many others were jailed and given harsh punishment.
Although the uprising was brutally suppressed at the time, it dented the legitimacy of the military regime, and paved the way for subsequent popular movements that eventually brought democracy to South Korea.
The Gwangju Democratization Movement had a profound impact on Korean politics and history. Beyond Korea, it became a symbol of people’s struggle against authoritarian regimes around the world.
To commemorate the spirit of this historic movement, the people of Gwangju established an international human rights award to honour individuals, groups or institutions in Korea and abroad that have contributed in promoting human rights, and advancing democracy and peace. Recipients of this prestigious award have included East Timor’s freedom fighter, and later president, Xanana Gusmao, the Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and many other dedicated human rights defenders, student leaders and labor rights activists.
The 2010 Gwangju Human Rights Award winner is Sushil Pyakurel of Nepal.
As the Gwangju people’s uprising was unfolding in Korea, four thousand kilometers away, in a small hamlet just outside Hetauda, Pyakurel, a young school teacher and political activist, was organizing an underground people’s struggle for democracy and human rights. Nepal too was under an authoritarian regime at that time. And though Pyakurel had never heard of Gwangju in those days, the spirit of Gwangju drove much of his work and activism.
Like their South Korean counterparts, the Nepalis too overthrew their authoritarian regime through a people’s movement in 1990 and instituted multi-party democracy. Pyakurel was a foot-soldier of that movement.
The 2010 Gwangju Human Rights Award winner is Sushil Pyakurel of Nepal. Recipients of this prestigious award have included East Timor’s freedom fighter, and later president, Xanana Gusmao, the Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and many other dedicated human rights defenders, student leaders and labour rights activists. During his three decades of civic activism, Pyakurel established Nepal’s largest and most eminent human rights organization, the Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC); founded the Forum for the Protection of Human Rights; became a commissioner of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission; and is currently president of the Accountability Watch Committee, Nepal.
In the course of his long and impressive career, Pyakurel played a crucial role in encouraging international pressure against the autocratic royal regime, including through establishment of the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal. Currently, he is collaborating with some of Nepal’s most prominent citizens and celebrities in a “Rollback Violence” campaign.
Such a campaign is badly needed, as Nepal is currently reeling under a wave of violence with widespread criminalization of politics and politicization of criminal activities. The multi-party democracy that Pyakurel and others helped institute after the 1990 people’s movement in Nepal was short-lived. In the mid-1990s, a group of extremist young revolutionaries carrying the banner of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), waged a civil war to overthrow parliamentary democracy and try to replace it with a “people’s democratic republic” somewhat patterned after the North Korean “juche” model.
The Maoist rebellion led to the re-emergence of an authoritarian royal regime that unleashed an orgy of violence and counter-violence resulting in over 15,000 people killed; hundreds of thousands wounded, disabled and displaced; and Nepal’s fragile economy, infrastructure and social fabric ruined in tatters.
A second people’s movement was launched in 2006 to end this new civil war and to establish a more progressive, republican democracy. Sushil Pyakurel was active again in this movement. The new-found democracy is still fragile, the peace process is still incomplete, and human rights are still insecure. So the struggle continues.
The spirit of Gwangju is still relevant in Nepal today. The honor of the Gwangju Human Rights Award conferred on Pyakurel will be a shot in the arm for all those Nepalis who continue to struggle for genuine democracy and human rights, as well as social progress and economic prosperity, rather than the chimera of the DPRK-style juche.
Nepal and Korea enjoy good friendship and growing people-to-people contacts. The spirit of Gwangju will bind them even more closely.
(Writer is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.)
Source: www.myrepublica.com, Published on: 2010-05-18