Toward a Global People’s Uprising

Posted by on July 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm.

towards peoples uprising

Popular intuition often anticipates forthcoming political upheavals with greater efficacy than predictive science. This may be the case with two recent movies, V for Vendetta and Children of Men. While vastly different in their plots, both films close with popular uprisings against monolithic imperial behemoths. Having destroyed much of humanity’s gentle side through systems of total control, the anticipated future governments leave people no alternative but to rise up and overthrow the whole wretched system.

Long ago, postmodernists passed on the possibility of system transformation (many even refused to acknowledge the system’s existence). Most radicals today reject the possibility of uprisings in countries which most need them—the UK and the US. Yet these two films inject precisely such a contingency into the matrix of moviegoers’ imaginations, thereby offering us more to chew on than many tomes churned out by the social movement industry or even by many “left” presses.

Despite television’s everyday portrayals of quiescent accommodation, struggles of epic proportions today animate millions of peoples’ lives. Latin America is embroiled in arguably the most significant transformation of its political and cultural landscape since Columbus. From the Zapatistas to the communards of Arequipa (Peru) and Chavez’s Venezuela, peoples’ daily lives are being bettered through ballots, protests and all manners of political activism—including popular insurrections. Less well known is a series of uprisings in East Asia in the last two decades of the 20th century. Their legacy includes the possibility of a global popular insurrection against the inhumane system of neoliberalism and war-regimes that today rules over the bulk of humanity’s accumulated wealth.

Beginning with the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, a chain reaction of revolts and uprisings swept through East Asia. Gwangju’s “beautiful community,” her people’s spontaneous creation of a Citizens’ Army and self-governing Commune, continues to inspire and instruct. Although overwhelmed in 1980, Gwangju people refused to submit and ultimately motivated the successful June 1987 uprising and won contemporary South Korea’s democracy. The 1989 revolutions in Europe are well known, but Eurocentrism often prevents comprehension of their Asian counterparts: the wave of East Asian from the Philippines (1986), Burma (1988), Tibet (1989), China (1989), Nepal (1990), Thailand (1992), to Indonesia (1998)—profound upheavals which serve today to help us better understand potential popular forms of action in the 21st century.

Gwangju Commune The Gwangju people’s uprising of 1980 provides both a glimpse of free societies of the future and a realistic example for those whose dreams of freedom remain unfulfilled either by parliamentary democracy or dictatorial domination. The most important dimensions of the Gwangju uprising are its affirmation of human dignity and prefiguration of substantive democracy. Gwangju has a meaning in Korean history that can only be compared to that of the Paris Commune in French history and of the battleship Potemkin in Russian history. Like the Paris Commune, the people of Gwangju spontaneously rose up and governed themselves until they were brutally suppressed by indigenous military forces abetted by an outside power. And like the battleship Potemkin, the people of Gwangju have repeatedly signaled the advent of revolution in Korea—in recent times from the 1894 Tonghak rebellion and the 1929 student revolt to the 1980 uprising.

Forged in the sacrifices of thousands, the mythical power of the Gwangju people’s uprising was tempered in the harsh years after 1980, when the dictatorship tried to cover up its massacre of as many as 2000 people. Even before the Gwangju Commune had been ruthlessly crushed, the news of the uprising was so subversive that the military burned an unknown number of corpses, dumped others into unmarked graves, and destroyed its own records. To prevent word of the uprising from being spoken publicly, thousands were arrested and hundreds tortured. In 1985, the first book about the Gwangju uprising appeared. Synergized with the message contained within poems, paintings, short stories, woodblock prints, plays, novels, songs and other forms of artistic expression, the truth about the military’s brutal killing of so many of its own citizens could not be hidden.

As monumental as the courage and bravery of the people in Gwangju were, their capacity for self-government is the defining hallmark of their revolt. In my view, it is the single most remarkable aspect of the uprising. The capacity for self-organization that emerged spontaneously, first in the heat of the battle and later in the governing of the city and the final resistance to the military’s counterattack, is mind expanding. In the latter part of the 20th century, high rates of literacy, the mass media, and universal education (which in Korea includes military training for every man) forged a capacity in millions of people to govern themselves far more wisely than the tiny elites all too often ensconced in powerful positions. As Choi Jungwoon put it: “In this community, there was no private ownership, other people’s lives were as important as one’s own, and time stood still. In this community, discriminations disappeared, individuals were merged into one, and fear and joy were intermingled…The key to this absolute community was ‘love’—in other words, a human response to noble beings…the struggle at the moment was an exciting self-creation…the intuitive nature of human dignity does not lie in the act and the result of pursuing individual interests and social status, but can be found in the act of recognizing a value larger than individual life and dedicating oneself to attaining it.”

After the military had been driven out of the city on May 21, hundreds of fighters in the citizens’ army patrolled the city. Everyone shared joy and relief. The city was free. Markets and stores were open for business, and food, water and electricity were available as normally. No banks were looted, and “normal crimes” like robbery, rape or theft hardly occurred—if at all. From below, people created mobile strike forces and consolidated the Citizens Army, a Settlement Committee, and a Struggle Committee; they cared for corpses and grieving family members, healed the wounded, and cleaned up the liberated city. Blood had been in short supply at the hospital, but as soon as the need became known, people flooded in to give theirs, including barmaids and prostitutes, who at one point publicly insisted that they, too, be permitted to donate. At many of the rallies, thousands of dollars for the settlement committees were quickly raised through donations.

Spontaneously a new division of labor emerged. For days, citizens voluntarily served free meals in the marketplace and kept constant guard against the expected counterattack. Everyone contributed to and found their place in liberated Gwangju. Preexisting organizations like Dulbul Night School, Clown Theatre Troupe and Nok Du Bookstore helped organize daily rallies of tens of thousands of people where direct democracy held sway. Decisions made at these general assemblies were implemented by smaller groups (including the Citizens’ Army). Even though the rallies were huge, many different kinds of people gathered—farmers, workers, housewives, students, priests, monks, seniors, shoeshine boys and waitresses—and were able to express heartfelt needs.

With US encouragement and support, the new military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan finally took back the city on the morning of May 27, 1980 (coincidentally the same day as the Paris Commune had been crushed in 1871). Although brutally repressed, the Korean movement never ceased to struggle to overthrow the dictatorship. In the rest of Korea, Gwangju became the watchword for democracy. As protests continued to intensify, the glorious victory of the Minjung movement in 1987 was won through a massive outpouring of popular protest that began on June 10, 1987. For nineteen consecutive days, hundreds of thousands of people illegally gathered in the streets demanding direct presidential elections. When Gwangju native Lee Han-yol was killed in a student protest near Yonsei University, more than one million people solemnly assembled to bury him. As in the Philippines a year earlier, massive occupation of public space compelled the military to relent—in this case by agreeing to hold direct elections for president. In July and August, thousands of strikes involving millions of workers broke out—and led to a decade of protracted struggle that won free trade unions. In a remarkable turn of events, former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were actually sent to prison in 1994 for their role in the Gwangju massacre.

Asian Democracy Uprisings East Asian dictatorships, many in power for decades, seemed unshakable in the early 1980s until a wave of revolts and uprisings transformed the region. Both Kim Dae Jung and Benigno Aquino, popular leaders of vast democratic strata, were in exile in Newton, Massachusetts, USA, in the early 1980s, when they got acquainted and exchanged views on how best to win democracy. Six years after the Gwangju uprising, the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown in the Philippines. The experiences of the Gwangju uprising helped to inspire action in Manila. In February 1986 in the Philippines, the walkout of 30 computer operators counting the votes in an election sparked 4 days of massive protests in an uprising led by the Catholic hierarchy and key elements of the military. In a matter of days, the confrontation was won by the rebellious troops supported by hundreds of thousands of people who refused to leave the streets. The Philippine people-power revolution in turn inspired the slowly rebuilding movement in South Korea.

All through Asia, people’s movements for democracy and human rights appeared: an end to 38 years of martial law was won in Taiwan in 1987, where anecdotal evidence tells of people singing Korean democracy movement songs in the streets; in Burma a popular movement exploded in March 1988, when students and ethnic minorities took to the streets of Rangoon (much as had happened in Gwangju). Despite horrific repression, the movement compelled President Ne Win to step down after 26 years of rule. In August, five days of new student-led protests forced his replacement to resign. A general strike committee representing workers, writers, monks and students coordinated a nationwide movement for multiparty democracy, but the military shot down thousands more people—bringing to over 10,000 the number of people it killed that year. Arresting thousands more, including over 100 newly elected parliamentarians, the Burmese military government continues to use an iron fist to remain in power.

The next year, student activists in China activated a broad public cry for democracy, only to be killed by the dozens at Tiananmen Square and hunted for years afterward. The revolt in China was from outside the ranks of the Party. Even within the halls of communism, however, as the chain reaction of revolts against military dictatorships continued, a member of the Politburo of Vietnam, General Tran Do, publicly asked for multi-party democracy in Vietnam in 1989, an unprecedented event. Nepal’s turn was next. Seven weeks of protests beginning in April 1990 compelled the king to democratize the government. (In 2006, after the monarchy had reconsolidated its hold on power, another wave of popular uprisings again won democracy.) The next country to experience an explosion was Thailand, when 20 days of hunger strike by a leading opposition politician brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in May 1992. Dozens were killed when the military suppressed street demonstrations, and because of this brutality, General Suchinda Krapayoon was forced to step down. In 1998 in Indonesia, students called for a “people-power revolution” and were able to overthrow Suharto. Interviews conducted by an American correspondent at the universities in Indonesia determined that the people-power slogan was adopted from the Philippines, as was the tactical innovation of the occupation of public space.

The Meaning of East Asian Uprisings The Gwangju Uprising stands as a shining example of the rapid spread of revolutionary aspirations and actions. The spontaneous chain reaction of uprisings and the massive occupation of public space signify the sudden entry into history of millions of ordinary people who act in a unified fashion because they intuitively believe that they can change the direction of their society. In such moments, universal interests become generalized at the same time as the dominant values of society (national chauvinism, hierarchy, domination, regionalism, possessiveness, etc.) are negated. This has been referred to as the “absolute community” and “organic solidarity” of participants in the Gwangju Commune. Humans have an instinctual need for freedom—something grasped intuitively—and it was this unconscious need that was sublimated into a collective phenomenon during the Gwangju uprising. The sudden emergence of hundreds of thousands of people occupying public space, the spread of the revolt from one city to another and throughout the countryside, the intuitive identification with each other of hundreds of thousands of people and their simultaneous belief in the power of their actions, the suspension of normal values like regionalism, competitive business practices, criminal behavior, and acquisitiveness are dimensions of what I call the “eros effect.”

After World War 2, the sudden and unexpected contestation of power has become a significant tactic in the arsenal of popular movements. While the mainstream version of history that dominates the airwaves emphasizes social conformity, beneath the radar, people’s understanding constitutes a powerful undercurrent. Our unified actions in the streets were dubbed a “second superpower” on February 15, 2003. With no central organization, 30 million people took to the streets to protest the second US war on Iraq, even though it had not yet started.

Will the cacophony of revolts in East Asia after Gwangju, coupled with new insurgencies in Latin America and elsewhere, lead to a more harmonized uprising against neoliberalism and war? Never envisioned prior to Gwangju, the possibility of a Gwangju-style revolt on a global scale could prove to be the most enduring legacy of the events of May 1980.


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