South Korea’s Gwangju uprising in 1980 and people’s protests in Egypt in 2011

Coming across with all the news reports about people’s protests against dictatorship in Egypt reminds me of South Korea’s own history of democratisation movements, which often ended in the bloodshed due to brutal suppression by the military, police or thugs.

One major uprising that still haunts people’s memory in South Korea is the violent oppression of people’s uprising in one of the southern provincial capital cities, Gwangju in Cholla South Province. In May 1980, ordinary people bravely stood up against the military government. In the course of this uprising, civilians were forced to arm themselves in order to defend them against military forces that repeatedly attempted to suppress them. For a brief period, the city was in an autonomous status, an urban commune that was governed by the people themselves with no real disorder and violence. Eventually, the city fell. More than 2,000 people were thought to have died or gone missing due to the military operation that ended on 27th May 1980. The operational code name for this military exercise that resulted in the massacre was ‘splendid holiday’.

Owing to the severe military containment of the city at that time, much of the national population were not aware of what was really going on in that part of the country. Reports were repeating government accusations that communists were behind these protests, and no exact details of military action were delivered. For many years, talking about Gwangju uprising was a taboo. One of the causes that drew university students towards student movement was knowing the truth about Gwangju uprising. Some rare video footage could be found on these YouTube links:

Gwangju massacre (Part 1)

Gwangju massacre (Part 2)

Gwangju massacre (Part 3)

In 1987, another big round of people’s uprising took place in Seoul, which led to the concession by the military government that agreed on a direct presidential election. Although this did not led to the change in power due to the division within the opposition leaders at that time, one of the key factors that led to this concession was the non-intervention by the military force at that time. Military actions in the form of coup d’etat no longer took place since 1980. I suppose there were too many risks involved for the military to intervene, now that they had witnessed escalating protests and discontents and that the whole world was carefully following the development of democratisation movements in places like Seoul. Perhaps, Seoul’s status as the host city of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games was another reason for such world-wide attention, making it even more difficult for the dictatorship to make any wrong moves.

Civil uprising in June 1987

Now that I see the series of protests in Egypt, my only hope is that the military does not intervene and let the people decide the course of history.

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