[Eng] History of Resistance: Myanmar in 2021, Gwangju in 1980

So Jung-han, OhMyNews reporter


© David Dolinger, Gwangju 1980

The devil is in the details.

When Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar took power in 2016 after enduring decades of persecution from the military dictatorship, the world thought the country would change for the better. The only change, however, was the country's shell. The "devil" that eroded Myanmar's politics, economy, society and culture never went away. Like a house built on a poor foundation, the country's fragile democracy in February 2021 collapsed after five years.


South Korea experienced a similar process. Its first president, Rhee Syng-man, assumed office on Aug. 15, 1948, and tried to remain dictator for life. His corruption and election fraud eventually led to his overthrow by the people in 1960 through the 4.19 Revolution. The Constitution was amended in June 1960 to introduce a parliamentary system of government in the first change of government type since the republic's establishment.


A year later, however, Major Gen. Park Chung-hee launched a coup on May 16, 1961, and seized power. As the nation's fifth president, he had the Constitution amended to remain head of state for life, but was assassinated on Oct. 26, 1979, by his confidante Kim Jae-kyu, head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Citizens who had suffered nearly two decades of Park's military dictatorship called the incident "Seoul Spring."


Korea had endured decades of military dictatorship as a house built on a poor foundation. The devil controlled the details to prevent democracy. And little would change even after Park's assassination. Several high-ranking officers from the Korea Military Academy who ran a secret organization in the military staged two major operations on Dec. 12, 1979 (coup d'etat), and May 17 1980 (expansion of martial law). The leaders of these incidents were Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who called their group the "new military" to differentiate themselves from Park. From May 18-27, 1980, the military again seized power by committing one of the country's worst massacres, and Chun took over as president shortly afterwards.


Gwangju, a city in the country's southwestern region, paid a horrific price for resisting the new junta. Recognized as a pro-democracy movement by the country in 1997, the May 18 Democratic Uprising in 1980 became a pivotal point in the history of Korean democracy.

Ignored for many years, the tragedy of Gwangju eventually became public knowledge as many people harbored a spirit of resistance and came to terms with past atrocities. Fortunately, the incident prevented the devil in the details from exerting great power again. A turning point in the nation's history of democratization came with its first direct presidential election in June 1987 after massive protests forced Chun out of office.


Democratization in Korea remains incomplete, but the threat of another military coup is nearly zero. From November 2016 to March 2017, the Candlelight Revolution brought down the Park Geun-hye administration, which tried to take advantage of its power for personal gain. Rumor had it that the military tried to take action again, but the people were no longer powerless to let that happen.


In Myanmar, the leader of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing, recently took over as prime minister after slaughtering thousands of people who resisted the coup. Seeing the deaths of numerous Myanmar people, I felt homogeneity with them as a Korean, especially as a reporter who covered the Gwangju Uprising several times. I have just one wish now. Just as the sacrifice of Gwangju was deemed the foundation of democracy in modern Korea, my hope is that Myanmar's sacrifice will receive the same recognition.


To make this a reality, more people must remember and record what happened in Myanmar. This movement must also continue from the outside rather than inside. As I mentioned earlier, the sacrifice of Gwangju remained undiluted and kept breathing because of many people who continued to remember and record it.


David Dollinger, who published the memoir ’Called by Another Name’, is one of them. He was in Gwangju in May 1980, and 41 years later, he still remembers and chronicles what he experienced there. To everyone who witnessed what occurred in Myanmar in 2021, he can be a valuable guide.

So Jung-han, OhMyNews reporter

So has reported on the Gwangju Uprising every year, and in 2021, he won the 5.18 Press Award for ‘Two Women in May’. He is now working on "I Am a Myanmar Journalist," a project to overcome crisis in journalism, with reporters in Myanmar.


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