In­side Asia’s bloody his­tory of stu­dent-led protests

‘We don’t just study,’ col­le­gians pro­claim but also rise up against power

The Korea Times - - FEATURE -

SEOUL — As a col­lege stu­dent, Lee Kyung-lan grew adept at as­sem­bling Molo­tov cock­tails us­ing paint thin­ner and soju bot­tles and learned that wear­ing a mask stuffed with tooth­paste-laden tis­sue made tear gas more bear­able, even if it wouldn’t help with blis­ter­ing on her skin.

Week af­ter week, she took to the streets with class­mates and chanted at the top of her lungs: for democ­racy, for di­rect elec­tions, for con­sti­tu­tional re­form.

The stu­dents sketched out bat­tle plans against riot po­lice on pieces of pa­per they passed around, mem­o­rized, then burned. Twice, she was ar­rested. Once, her head was rammed against the side of a truck by po­lice.

That was the 1980s in South Korea, then ruled by an army gen­eral who took power in a mil­i­tary coup.

Three decades later, the streets of Hong Kong are look­ing a lot like South Korea did in the 1980s. Young pro­test­ers lead­ing the charge and a rest­less pop­u­lace com­ing to their sup­port. In­creas­ingly vi­o­lent clashes with riot po­lice. An un­re­lent­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ment with for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary might.

Stu­dents are also at the fore­front of re­cent wide­spread protests in In­done­sia against new laws that demon­stra­tors say weaken the coun­try’s anti-cor­rup­tion agency and against plans to crim­i­nal­ize and in­crease pun­ish­ment for sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties. At least two have been killed in clashes with po­lice, in some of the big­gest protests since a stu­dent-led upris­ing in 1998 that top­pled strongman Suharto.

Asia has never had a sin­gle defin­ing moment like the Arab Spring, the surge of up­ris­ings that swept through Arab na­tions in the early 2010s.

But many coun­tries in South­east and North­east Asia have rich his­to­ries of stu­dent-driven move­ments that have in­spired, trig­gered and fed off of one an­other, bring­ing waves of so­cial un­rest and re­sis­tance against au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism over the decades.

It was Thai uni­ver­sity stu­dents who led the ouster of a mil­i­tary govern­ment in 1973, bring­ing about a short-lived demo­cratic govern­ment. Tai­wanese stu­dents rose up in 2014, seiz­ing par­lia­ment in Taipei in protest of a trade pact with main­land China in what be­came known as the Sun­flower Move­ment.

The sum­mer of 1987 marked a wa­ter­shed for South Korea, now one of Asia’s most sta­ble and thriv­ing democ­ra­cies.

That year, the deaths of two col­lege stu­dents — one who drowned while be­ing tor­tured by po­lice, the other struck in the head by a tear-gas can­is­ter — sparked protests so fer­vent that the govern­ment caved in and agreed to hold di­rect elec­tions.

The par­al­lels have not been lost on pro­test­ers in Hong Kong, where a South Korean protest song trans­lated into Can­tonese — “March for the Beloved” — has rung out in the streets, and mul­ti­ple pub­lic screen­ings have been held for “1987: When the Day Comes,” a re­cent block­buster movie dra­ma­tiz­ing South Korea’s pro-democ­racy move­ment.

This month, Joshua Wong, the 23-year-old who has be­come one of the most rec­og­niz­able faces of the Hong Kong protests, posted two pho­tos on Twit­ter de­pict­ing po­lice crack­downs of pro­test­ers decades apart in the two ar­eas and the words: “1980.5.18 in South Korea / 2019.10.1 in Hong Kong.” The post was retweeted more than 25,000 times.

Lee Tae-ho, who was a stu­dent protest leader in South Korea in the late 1980s, trav­eled to Hong Kong in late July at the in­vi­ta­tion of ac­tivists there to talk about the pro-democ­racy move­ment in South Korea.

He also talked about the month­s­long peace­ful can­dle­light protests in 2016 and 2017 that led to the im­peach­ment of then-South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye in a cor­rup­tion scan­dal.

“We ex­changed in­for­ma­tion about each of our ex­pe­ri­ences,” said Lee, who re­mains an ac­tivist with the Civil So­ci­ety Or­ga­ni­za­tions Net­work in Korea and main­tains con­nec­tions with lead­ers of demo­cratic move­ments in the re­gion through a group called the Asia Democ­racy Net­work.

“I de­scribed ef­forts we made in Korea to keep protests peace­ful … how un­fore­seen clashes can lead to vi­o­lence that can give au­thor­i­ties an ex­cuse for more op­pres­sion.”

Erik Mo­brand, pro­fes­sor of Korean stud­ies at Seoul Na­tional Uni­ver­sity who is an ex­pert on South Korea’s democ­racy and pol­i­tics else­where in Asia, said there are “strong par­al­lels” be­tween the move­ments in South Korea and Hong Kong — both driven by young peo­ple aided by mo­men­tum built up over a pe­riod of years.

But as much as South Korea’s ex­am­ple might be heart­en­ing, he said, Hong Kong’s unique po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of be­ing semi­au­tonomous un­der Bei­jing’s rule leaves far less lee­way for Hong Kong’s lead­ers to find a com­pro­mise with pro­test­ers.

“The dif­fer­ences in terms of what the regime can do in re­sponse are quite stark,” he said, adding that the re­cent shoot­ing of a pro­tester might act as a cat­a­lyst.

“One thing we learned from South Korean po­lit­i­cal his­tory is that when tragic things hap­pen to young peo­ple at the hands of po­lice, the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion es­ca­lates.”

Even so, stu­dent move­ments can catch on beyond bor­ders, lan­guage and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems be­cause the young in one coun­try can iden­tify with the frus­tra­tions of those protest­ing in an­other, said Meredith Weiss, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the State Uni­ver­sity of New York in Al­bany who has stud­ied stu­dent ac­tivism in Asia.

“Stu­dents can re­late … there’s an au­to­matic affin­ity. ‘Wow they’re do­ing that, we can too,’” she said. “The con­tent might not be the same, but this is some­thing we as stu­dents can do, we don’t just study but rise up against power.”

In South Korea, many of those who pre­vi­ously took part in stu­dent up­ris­ings are now in charge of run­ning the coun­try, many of them prom­i­nent law­mak­ers, schol­ars and govern­ment of­fi­cials. In fact, Pres­i­dent Moon Jaein had been ex­pelled from school and re­peat­edly jailed for tak­ing part in protests against the dic­ta­tor­ship.

Even so, they have largely re­mained mum on protests in Hong Kong, wary of in­cur­ring the wrath of Bei­jing, by far South Korea’s most im­por­tant trad­ing part­ner.

Lee Kyung-lan, the one­time col­lege stu­dent pro­tester, is now a 53-yearold mother of two.

The events in Hong Kong, for her, are a poignant re­minder of her col­lege days. Stu­dent ac­tivists of her gen­er­a­tion knew full well they were risk­ing their lives in the fight, she said. Just a few years ear­lier, in 1980, troops had laid siege to and opened fire on pro­test­ers in the south­ern city of Gwangju, killing hun­dreds.

On June 9, 1987, she was tak­ing part in protests out­side the gates of her uni­ver­sity in Seoul. Rather than shoot the tear gas into the air as was typ­i­cal, riot po­lice ap­peared to aim low, di­rectly at the stu­dents, she re­called. Her class­mate, Lee Hanyeol, was struck in the head, fell into a coma and later died.

His death be­came a ral­ly­ing cry. By late June, au­thor­i­ties an­nounced they would re­in­state di­rect elec­tions as de­manded by pro­test­ers.

Dur­ing the protests of 2016 and 2017, Lee took part in the peace­ful can­dle­light protests with her adult son and daugh­ter, who were in their early 20s, around the same age she’d been dur­ing that restive pe­riod in 1987.

It hit home to her that she and her chil­dren were now ex­er­cis­ing the same rights she and her class­mates had fought so dearly for decades ear­lier, she said.

“Back then, we’d get rained on with tear gas im­me­di­ately,” she said. “Now, I can voice what it is I want with­out any of that.”

LA Times-Tri­bune News

Pro­tester spread out bricks pulled from the side­walk as ob­sta­cles on Nathan Road in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, on Oct. 20.

Korea Times file

Stu­dents hurl­ing rocks and Molo­tov cock­tails at the en­trance of Yon­sei Uni­ver­sity in Seoul in this June 1987 file photo.

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