Dr. Binayak Sen, the 2011 Gwangju Human Rights Award Winner

This year’s Gwangju Human Rights Award winner is Binayak Sen, the Indian Medical Doctor who has served local patience in Chhattisgarh while fighting for human rights to the extend that he was given a life sentence by his “the world’s largest democracy.” Archaic laws and false charges were used agai nst Sen because he worked hard ot protect the original homeland, forest and waters of the indigenous Adivasis. PSOSCO, the huge Korean Steel maker has been the driving force behind development that would “steal Iron ore at 60 cents per ton, (the going rate is $120) and not pay the tribe anything, while also setting up a steel factory on the land.

His acceptance speech also covered the massive poverty, with 43% of the children under five are malnourished, the average Indian lives on 50 cents a day, and 863 million Indians living in abject poverty, while India sports the largest number of US dollar billionaires in Asia these days. He also noted that UNICEF estimates two million children per year die in India due to malnutrition and related diseases.

His work for the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and support of local unions and the land got him accused of helping Maoist rebels, and he was in Gwangju on Parole form the Supreme court, after being arrested and jailed in 2007.

He does not know whether he will be in jail again or not, but it appears the Supreme Court decision, which was influenced by support for Sen ranging from Amnesty International all the way up to Nobel Prize winners. For a complete rundown of his speech, and the two special prize winners go to http://www.gicjournal.wordpress.com

After his speech he went to a different subject and said “can you believe the world will still consider building more nuclear power plants after what happened in Japan?!?”

Daniela Kitain and Mazen Faraj, both members of the Parents Circle Families Forum, a group that promotes understanding and peace, along with justice in Palestine/Israel received the Special award this year. Both have lost family members to each other’s army’s bullets, and their group is working with other families who have lost loved ones to the continued violence in an attempt to build human rights via peace. Daniela lost a 21-year-old son, and Mazen, who was born in a refugee camp and lived through a hellish young life, had an additional pain applied when his father, at age 62, was gunned down.

As always, human rights activists from around the world attended the ceremonies, including the memorial ceremony at the 518 ceremony. The night before, an evening overture to a series of seminars, performances, and flat-out crying occurred on Geumnam-no, as congregants of the May 18th Foundation’s 2011 Human Rights Award ceremony filed into the area that saw the worst of the 1980 massacre (along with “Sangmu”) and the last of the massacre (at Provincial Hall).

What began as a peaceful demonstration against the ruling dictatorship of Choi Kyu-hah who served from December 18, 1979 until August 16, 1980, and more to the point, his immediate predecessor, Park Chung Hee, who was in charge for two terms from December 27, 1972 until October 26, 1979, and later Chun Doo Hwan, who kept dictatorships alive against greatly suffering protests. It’s too tragic to list the number of work camps, imprisonments and destruction of lives that occurred to many who resisted the dictators, but once the movement for democracy took place, it was not to be denied.

But denial, until 1987 was handled by Chun Doo Hwan, one of the most vicious dictators, and the one who, though Lee Myung Bak could not manage to come any but the first possible May 18th celebration in Gwangju, was able to have tea with Lee Myung Bak. A sitting president skips the 518 memorial, the first one to do so, yet is able to sit and take tea with Chun Doo Hwan? The implications are massive. The policy decision to use forced water cannons on USA Beef protestors in which were, according to Wikipedia were: “the country’s largest anti-government protests in 20 years,” resulted in eight deaths, and the beef being allowed into South Korea in less than a months after those futile deaths.


One hopes that the lessons learned on 518 and in 2008 will both be heeded in the upcoming elections.

However, Under Chun, as many know, at least 54 suicides were directly related to the movement for democracy between May 18, 1980 and the gaining of a direct vote in 1987. The most noted were the students who first published pamphlets about the importance of democracy, and then flung themselves from the library tower at Seoul National University.

Among Gwangju’s deaths was the Chonnam National University Student Union President, Park Gwan Hyeon, who died of a hunger strike in prison in 1982. A new Liberal Arts building at ChonnDae is named after him.

Such sacrifice was needed, and such sacrifice succeeded. Sadly, Japan, East Timor and India remain the only democratic or semi-democratic states in Asia. But the May 18th Foundation has a large group of human rights interns who are schooled in the technical realities of how to foster democracy back in their home countries.

Robert Kesten, an activist in town for the Human Rights Award ceremonies and seminars, and director of the “People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning,” had an perceptive perspective about May 18. “Not enough people ever found out about May 18, 1980 in Gwangju in my hoe country of the United States. By 1980 the U.S. media had changed from a watchdog to a mouthpiece for government. This problem persists not just in the U.S. and Asia, but in Europe now as well,” he said. “We have so much more news going on yet hear more about Lindsey Lohan than the wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even form economists all we get is blah, blah blah.”

Kesten describes his Non-Government Organization (NGO) as a human rights corps: “a group of dedicated activists seeking to train people in villages, towns and cities about the importance of human rights. We are based in New York, but achieved a grant form the Swiss government,” the activist said. A typical worker in the PDHRE (I don’t know how they got the “D,” but the People, and Human Rights Education appear to be good guesses for the other letters) is not in it for monetary gain, but to instill the importance of human rights at a time when the globalized profit motive has turned billions into wage slaves. This poverty exacerbates the opportunities for human rights abuses, and amounts to one in itself.

His inadvertent use of corps might make one think of the Peace Corps, but the US Government controlled group couldn’t be further form what Kesten’s and other NGOs are trying to achieve these days. Other groups such as two form Japan: the Peace Boat (which uses microloans and education to create local economies in impoverished part of Asia) and Bicycle for Everyone’s Environment, the educated about global warming and bicycle use throughout Japan, travelling by bicycle of course, are part of a growing network that is slowly gaining momentum, and acts as a counter-balance to the profit-over-people approach that has failed to create a middle class in most of Asia.

ON the home-grown side, Kim Jung-Kil, the twice-elected Assemblymen from Busan, and former General Affairs minister in Kim Dae Jung’s cabinet, was on hand to usher in a new era that can gain the strength of the democratic movement in time for next year’s elections. As a “democracy professor” he came to keep the Gwangju flame burning, and looked for all the world, like a presidential candidate as he enjoyed the triangular Kimbop offered by volunteer ajummas on Geumnam-no.

The hope is that more middle schools and high schools and even hagwans create field trips to the events during this week, and encourage participation in more events coming up May 21 and 22 downtown. SO, Native English Speakers, stuck for a leson plan? See if you supervisor will let your class visit an activity related to “518.” Here’s to the spirit of Oh Ee Pal!

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