Spirit of Gwangju binds Nepal and Korea
By Kul Chandra Gautam
The May 18, 1980, Gwangju Democratization Movement occupies a special place in the annals of the world's great uprisings against authoritarianism and for democracy.
It was the culmination of a series of 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 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. Kim and many others were jailed and harshly punished.
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 has had a profound impact on Korean politics and history. It has become a symbol and a marker 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 honor individuals, groups or institutions in Korea and abroad that have contributed to promoting and advancing human rights, 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 Prize for 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 in southern Nepal, Pyakurel, a young school teacher and political activist was involved in an underground people's struggle for democracy and human rights.
Nepal too was under an authoritarian regime at that time. And while 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 Nepalese too overthrew their authoritarian regime through a people's movement in 1990 and instituted multiparty democracy.
Pyakurel was a foot-soldier of that movement, and went on to establish Nepal's largest and most eminent civil society human rights organization, the Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC).
During his over three decades-long civic activism, he 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 and a member of the Dialogue Group for the Constituent Assembly.
In the course of his long and impressive career, Pyakurel played a crucial role in encouraging international pressure against the then royal regime of Nepal, including in the establishment of the U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal.
Collaborating with some of Nepal's most prominent citizens and celebrities, he is actively involved 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 multiparty 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 the parliamentary democracy and institute a ``people's democratic republic'' sounding very much like the North Korean ``juche'' model.
The Maoist rebellion led to the re-emergence of an authoritarian royal regime that unleashed counter-revolutionary violence.
This orgy of violence and counter-violence resulted in over 15,000 people killed; hundreds of thousands wounded, disabled and/or displaced; Nepal's fragile economy, infrastructure and social fabric was 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.
The spirit of Gwangju is still relevant in Nepal. The honor of the Gwangju Prize for 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 personal contact. The spirit of Gwangju will bind them even more closely.
Kul Chandra Gautam is a former deputy executive director of UNICEF and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations. He can be reached at email@example.com and www.kulgautam.org.