(en) Clashes In Kwanju, South Korea

Arm The Spirit (ats@locust.etext.org)
Mon, 19 May 1997 20:25:56 -0400 (EDT)


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S. Korea Honors Massacre Victims; Clashes Mar Ceremonies In Kwangju

[photo w/caption: A South Korean riot policeman is hit by a firebomb thrown by students outside Chosun University in Kwangju, South Korea, on Saturday.]

KWANGJU, South Korea - Confronting its controversial past, South Korea for the first time honored as heroes of democracy the victims of a 1980 army massacre in the southwestern city of Kwangju. But ceremonies at a newly dedicated cemetery attended by about 5,000 Kwangju residents, many of them elderly women still anguished by the loss of loved ones, were marred by vicious fighting between students and police. About 3,000 students hurling rocks and firebombs battled riot police at Chosun University for the second night running. They were seeking to parade through the streets the coffin of a young colleague who died of a heart attack during an anti-government protest in March. A haze of tear gas hung over the campus, where the coffin lay, along with smoke from a series of bonfires set by radical students to take the sting out of the choking gas. Streets around the university were ankle-deep in rubble, smashed glass and spent tear-gas canisters as police blocked the students from staging their march. Prime Minister Koh Kun led the official mourning during rites at the "May 18 Cemetery" to mark the anniversary of the 1980 military rampage. "The Kwangju massacre was a fight to protect democracy," he told relatives of the victims who streamed into the cemetery in chartered buses, aboard trucks and on foot bearing incense and gifts of fruit for the dead. "We should not forget the tragic past," he said. "The citizens of Kwangju should show their strength to overcome the past and help spread the spirit to all Koreans." Koh laid a single white chrysanthemum on a black marble altar in front of a 131-foot high memorial in the form of stylized hands clasping an egg, a symbol of life. Nearby, Choi Kil-dong, whose 25-year-old daughter was eight months pregnant when soldiers shot her, wept beside a simple tombstone that read: "You were an angel. See you in heaven." More than 200 people died, by official count, when paratroopers stormed Kwangju to crush an armed revolt against martial law imposed by then-general Chun Doo Hwan, who later became president. Residents say several thousand may have been killed by machine-gun fire, rifle butts and bayonets. Only recently have South Koreans begun to confront the darkest chapter in their recent history. Chun was sentenced to life in jail and his presidential successor, former general Roh Tae-woo, to 17 years for their roles in the carnage. Final appeals in the case were exhausted in April. Thousands of police cradling tear-gas rifles ringed the cemetery, wary of trouble from Chosun University students trying to upstage the event with their own funeral ceremony. About 1,000 students managed to slip off the college grounds in small groups and marched on the cemetery where they arrived with roars and shouts. Police around the graves drew back to avoid spoiling the solemn funeral rites with violence. Earlier, they had succeeded in blocking militant workers and farmers from bursting in. The bodies of 124 victims were moved to the new cemetery from nearby graves this month. Relatives of 19 others have refused to rebury the remains. Other victims are listed as missing. "What use is a new cemetery? It won't bring back my son," wailed Kim Chan-un, prostrating herself on the grave of her son who was just 17 when paratroopers killed him. "The government wouldn't have had to waste money building this cemetery if they hadn't massacred innocent people in the first place." (Source: MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.com)

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