On 15 June 2000 – 10 days before the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War – the leaders of South and North Korea capped off an historic summit with a declaration to work towards peaceful reunification.
In August there was a second milestone: a meeting of 200 family members separated by the war. The reunion was the subject of a day-long live telecast. Watching it, like millions of other Koreans, I was overcome by a mixture of hope and han. Han is a term with no English equivalent. It refers to an intense feeling of frustrated national hope in the face of historical oppression in a small country where invasion and national division have been enduring wounds in the popular psyche.
In those heady months of 2000, Koreans felt an exuberant hope that reunification was now within their grasp. Even the conservative media in the South warmed to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il, with some affectionately comparing him to a Teletubby!
The South Korean state was founded at the height of the Cold War by an ultra-conservative US-sponsored élite whose rule was legitimized by anti-communist fear-mongering. Even modest reform following the April 1960 student uprising was violently crushed. Today, it is still common to see government billboards advertising a hotline number to report ‘reds’.
This political shift is underwritten by economic changes. During the 1990s, South Korean big business – once protected by a capitalist command economy replete with five-year plans – was exposed to greater international competition and a budding, reform-hungry labour movement. Many capitalists looked towards North Korea where the Soviet collapse and crippling natural disasters had forced the opening up of its economy. There, just a few hours’ drive from Seoul, an educated, disciplined labour force could be found – socially supported by a stable and cost-free state.
In 1992, companies in South Korea began sending materials and equipment to the North to undertake ‘processing-on-commission’ manufacture. Inter-Korean trade last year totalled $641 million, 59.3- per-cent more than 2001 and a near-threefold increase since 1998. Business transactions stood at $342 million, 45-per-cent greater than 2001.
This economic-led rapprochement with the North has emboldened and legitimized a popular outpouring of han. Last November mass candlelight rallies swept South Korea following the acquittal of two US soldiers who had run over and killed a couple of schoolgirls. There are 37,000 US soldiers currently stationed in South Korea. Sparked by an impassioned email posting on a discussion list, the first rally on 30 November attracted 10,000.
By the next weekend it had spread to 36 towns and cities. By mid-December, the Seoul rally had reached 100,000, with tens of thousands more in 90 other towns and cities. This rebounded back at the top, with Roh Moo-Hyun winning the 19 December presidential election on a promise of greater independence from the US.
The US is presently stoking confrontation to legitimize its military presence in the South, which threatens to resurrect hardliners in both Korean capitals, Pyongyang and Seoul. Short of a mass revolt against the US alliance, the liberal élite in the South can retain the initiative only by appeasing the anti-North camp and bowing to Washington’s lead in dealing with Pyongyang. This is partly what motivated Roh to send troops to Iraq in April. Such appeasement, coupled with the Iraq war (which offers a glimpse of what may now await the Korean peninsula) will intensify feelings of national humiliation, and drive Korea once again away from the reunification that so many had stepped towards.
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On 19 May this year, the Indonesian Government declared martial law in its northwest province of Aceh following the collapse of peace talks in Tokyo. The Indonesian military (TNI) – now in charge of the province – claims to be targeting the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which is waging an armed struggle for independence. But democracy activists are also being targeted. In the first weeks of the latest crackdown, some 350 schools were razed and 12,000 people were displaced. Civilians have been rounded up and shot, including boys as young as 12 years old.
Just over a month before, on the opposite side of the Republic, 900 West Papuans fled Indonesian troops searching for weapons near Wamena in the Papuan highlands. Since then, graphic reports have been made by West Papua’s human-rights investigators ELS-HAM about Papuans from this area who have been tortured both publicly and in custody by Indonesian troops.
The military action in both areas represents the Indonesian Government’s hardening line to those from its resource-rich provinces advocating separation from the Republic. The events also indicate the Government’s increasing preparedness to give the military an unrestricted hand.
Indonesia’s justice system has to date declined to hold the military to account for flagrant human-rights abuses. No senior officer has yet been brought to justice for the military-backed massacres in East Timor, either during the occupation or after the referendum. Major-General Adam Damiri, who is accused of crimes against humanity in East Timor, failed to appear before the human-rights court recently for the third time in succession because he is helping supervise the war in Aceh.
Lenient sentences have been given to seven officers from Indonesia’s crack military force, Kopassus, for their assassination of West Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay in November 2001. The chief of staff of the Indonesian army, General Ryamizard Ryacudu, is reported to have called those convicted ‘heroes because the person they killed was a rebel leader’. The senior officers who masterminded the murder have not been indicted.
In addition, the military have continued to obstruct investigations into the murders of two Americans and one Indonesian near the Freeport mine in West Papua in August 2002. A group of 17 US senators have now called on President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia to make the investigation into the Freeport killings ‘a national priority’.
Turning a blind eye to human-rights abusers is one thing. Giving them the green light is another. A new bill that set out to curb the Indonesian military’s power will actually award them far more. If accepted into law, the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) Bill would give the military unilateral authority to order out the troops in the event of an ‘emergency’. It directly undermines last year’s vote by Indonesia’s highest legislative body to end the military’s parliamentary participation altogether in 2004.
Human-rights activists have voiced concern that it is an attempt by the military to regain the domination it previously enjoyed for more than three decades during the Suharto dictatorship. With Indonesia’s first direct presidential elections coming up in 2004, it is feared that the bill would allow the military to stage a coup during the political conflicts that will peak during and possibly after the election campaign.
As nearly all major political parties endorse the draft, the controversial bill stands a fair chance of being endorsed by the House to curry the military’s favour. Megawati, who theoretically can still change the draft before it is submitted to the House for deliberation, is likely to heed the military’s demand, realizing that she cannot survive without their backing.
If the bill is endorsed and enacted into law, the military will not just return to the country’s political arena but will become a super-institution with powers far exceeding those of the President. ‘The bill is just sinister,’ said former Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman. ‘How can they get away with it?’
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
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