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Massacres and Morality

Statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission for the International Youth Camp at Kwangju, Korea, 14 - 20 May, 1996, organised by Kwangju Citizens' Solidarity, for the commemoration of the KWANGJU MASSACRE which occurred on the 18th May, 1980.

Source  :  Asian Human Rights Commission



To anyone who spends some time trying to understand the causes of human rights violations including massacres, one stark truth will clearly begin to appear: All human rights violations are the result of deliberate human decisions. Often they are deliberate compromises. The resulting decisions have been arrived at through a process of weighing pros and cons. In addition, these decisions have been made by groups and not merely by single individuals. The group may have made a direct decision for the violation or may have laid down rules generally to be applied to specific situations.

It will also begin to be clear that the violations are not only deliberate and intentional; not only designed by groups, but that these actions are also approved by a considerable section of society. The approval may be positive, in the sense that the particular actions may be regarded as good, or negative, in the sense that these actions are regarded as necessary evils.

Thus, the Kwangju massacre of which we have gathered to commemorate in the very city that it took place on 18th of May 1980, was a deliberate and intentional action, designed in advance by a group of persons and approved by a section of society. Since then a magnificent and a consistent attempt has been made, by the people of Kwangju in particular and people of Korea in general, to find justice and to learn lessons from this massacre. The fact that two Presidents have been brought before the courts and that democratic movement has gathered momentum speaks well for the Korean people. However no one will say that adequate justice has been done and that we need to stop probing into this event. To say so will be to impose limits on what is now being called as the "sprit of Kwangju."

Even more important than pinning down criminal and political liability, is the need to understand the thinking of the groups and sections of society that supported the massacre and its cover-up for over 15 years. If what went on inside the minds of people belonging to these groups and sections of society is not properly uncovered, only an artificial change will take place and history might repeat itself in a sinister way. The social enlightenment necessary for true democratization comes only from deep aprobing into tendencies that support violence that exist in our society. Alexander and Margeret Mitscherlich in their great book THE INABILITY TO MOURN, speak of the German peoples' inability to come to terms with the violence generated by their society by way of the second world war. Dealing with collective guilt that wounds the national pride is a difficult task. However if we are true to the Kwangju spirit then we must be able, to look and probe into everything that led to the massacre and its cover up.

When we talk of the groups that were behind the Kwangju massacre, an important place has to be given to the military. What went on inside 'the military mind' at the time? Were they only planning a massacre of the students or were they trying to teach a lesson to the entire Korean society? Or were they trying to remold Korean society, by instilling fear into those who loved freedom and justice the way the Kwangju students did? How did this military mind develop in the historical context of Korea? Who were the tutors? What was the practical training they received to carry out a massacre accurately? What are the social groups that wanted and helped to develop such a military mind and what were their motives?

Unfortunately, Asia is still so full of massacres. Millions of people killed in Cambodia, hundreds of thousands of people killed in Indonesia, and constant killings in Sri Lanka, are some glaring examples. The local rulers as well as colonial rulers have bequeathed to us, cultures that takes easily to killings. When we talk of our great heritages we should not forget the darker side of that heritage. All cultures have darker sides, including the Western culture, which is rooted in violence more than any other, as Asian people know from their own experiences. So we need not be too shy, to take a good look at the dark side of our collective soul.

Examination of that darker side would reveal that all massacres, like other human rights violations, are products of collective will and consent, and of the society as a whole. Society itself is at most times unconscious of its own will. At certain times in history a society which has become fearful of those who seek freedom, gives its consent (unconsciously, of course), to kill the freedom lovers. It is not accidental that the victims of the Kwangju massacre were youths. They were students. Old morals of discipline and order, try to assert themselves against the new morality of freedom and solidarity. Those who benefit from the old morality and the state which gives assent to their designs, are the executioners. But society as a whole bears responsibility for killing. Without a thorough probing into the morality which made the massacre possible in the first place, protests, however heroic, lead only to superficial results.

A massacre is often tolerated as a necessary evil. In any serious attempt to understand why a massacre took place in a particular society at a particular time, it is necessary to concentrate on what such a society would tolerate as a necessary evil. This tolerance takes place deep in the of minds of people and is often externally expressed only by way of indirect language. However, it is often expressed by way of indirect references in for example, such statements as the following." We are realists. We have to deal with development of our country. For that we have to do things which are unpleasant." Such is a way of expressing something, that has to be done and tolerated, as a necessary evil. Though this is expressed in ambiguous language among the public, in the inner circles of those who are directly dealing with the killings, the directives could be less ambiguous. During the 1971 youth rebellion in Sri Lanka, the armed forces received the following coded message," I do not want to see casualties, I want to see dead bodies." The armed forces went on rampage after this, killing thousands. In the same country in 1989, during the Southern protests, a minister told the forces," I want the ground." And many massacres followed. An examination of any massacre will disclose a similar type of discourse. The actions undertaken for elimination of something that is defined or described as evil, are usually seen as necessary evils. A subtle way of preparing the way for a massacre is to present some acts resulting in a massacre as necessary evils.

A necessary evil is often explained on the basis of a lack of alternatives. Killing is presented as the only alternative possible in the circumstances. It is quite a common phenomenon now in many Asian countries to speak of the need for the total elimination of political enemies, as the being only alternative a government . The equations are so arranged, that it is not possible to point to any other immediate alternative. It takes quite an effort to deconstruct such equations and to show that there are other and better alternatives. For such deconstruction to take place there is a need for much more space and freedom of expression. However, the use of violence as the only alternative is generally presented in the background of social tensions and restraints, that allow little opportunity for presentation of alternative views. In this sense, we could speak of a political culture of massacres .

The Asian Human Rights Commission has organized and participated in many consultations within the last year, where Asian human rights groups have gathered and discussed their experiences. We are aware of the details of extensive human rights abuses that are taking place, in each country. The new world order has brought about and is bringing about, intense forms of violence and abuses of human rights. The Right to life is being abused by way of a deprivation of economic justice as well as action undertaken under National Security Laws . Many are losing their livelihood and are facing ejectment from their houses, lands and neighborhoods. Women are forced into extreme situations of poverty and indignity and millions of children face destitution. The from of government that is beings encouraged is the one that deals with its people with a heavy hand and for the benefit of 'the investors'. Even the investors from the first world countries of Asia, who are after cheap labour, forget their human obligations. Social justice continues to be a distant goal. We must remind ourselves that at the root of all massacres is the military culture which is designed for the purpose of denying economic justice.

At the heart of the ideology of the new world order is a deadly morality which could routinely lead to events such as the Kwangju massacre. It is necessary to become conscious of and be aware of this new world order "morality." It is necessary to repudiate it, if we are talk to of Kwangju spirit in any authentic manner.

The organizers have suggested an establishment of a human rights institute. We support the idea. We would like to make some suggestions for what such an institute should do, if it is to promote the Kwangju spirit and not some archaic academic spirit, as some such institutions do. An effective human rights institute must devote itself to experience sharing instead of mere statistics gathering. Constant research on events such as Kwangju and other massacres, the free trade zones and new labour practices, military schools and military ideologies on the one hand and the ways people develop methods of fighting to defend their dignity and their collective responsibilities on the other hand, should be the subjects promoted by such an institute. We need institutes that help to humanize people in a genuine way and that promote true and not fake reconciliation. The Asian Human Right Commission has summed up this approach in a small note entitled 'Justice and Peace.'

Justice and Mercy

There is no genuine reconciliation without justice. There is no genuine justice without mercy. Justice involves the restoring of the balance destroyed by acts of injustice. It is only through the participation of the victim through real actions of justice that the imbalance can be cured. Full restoration of the lost balance does not and cannot take the people to the same situation which existed before the balance was broken. Only in a completely new situation the balance be re-established. This new situation cannot be achieved without an intense sense of mercy on the part of the victim. It is only an absolute sense of justice accompanied by an absolute sense of mercy that create the new situation that will produce the energy to sustain the new situation. Ruthless revenge destroys the inner capacity of the victim. It generates negative energies. The result is the further degeneration of the situation of imbalance. The degeneration into ruthless revenge can only be prevented by the intense sense of mercy that is alive in the people and in society at all times. Such a sense of mercy needs to be nurtured and cultivated by conscious actions. It is not possible to nurture and cultivate such a sense of mercy without sustaining an intense sense of justice among the people and in the society all the time. Mercy without justice is submission and weakness. It is not mercy at all.

These days people talk of conflict resolution. Some of the conflicts that need to be resolved have a history of two thousand years or more. The negative energies generated and recreated by acts of injustice and replicated throughout the centuries remain the source of these conflicts. To resolve these conflicts much more needs to be done besides creating new political formulas. Ways must be found to create and sustain justice and mercy within the social milieu at all times. It is necessary to bring the concepts of justice and mercy into the discussion on conflict resolution. Without such concepts, conflict resolution will become unreal and illusory. Such an absence creates tautology at the theoretical level and unfocused activism at the practical level. Such confusion at the theoretical level and disjointedness at the active level lead to mental states such as bitterness, frustration, cynicism, negativism and passivity, which further contribute to the degeneration of the situation and the replication of situations of injustice. For a real break-through to occur, actions based on justice and mercy are necessary.

Justice requires the acknowledgment of injustice. This acknowledgment needs to come from the perpetrators of the injustices and their institutional representatives. It needs to be genuine. Mere apologies are not real expressions of acknowledgment of wrong. Genuine acknowledgment would be marked by the creation of an enabling environment in which victims could reciprocate by way of genuine acts of mercy. It is at this point when a new relationship really begins.

On the other hand the genuine sense of mercy that the victims create out of their own inner strength, and their own humanity creates an enabling environment within which guilty perpetrators and their institutional representatives would find it difficult to escape from acknowledging their responsibilities for disturbing the social balance by their acts of injustice. When this two-way process is seriously recognized by the society, there comes into being real grounds for hope for recovery. Within a framework which recognizes the principles of justice and mercy, the irreconcilable can be reconciled and the unhealable can be healed.

May the spirit of Kwangju spread in all lands and may it guide us and the future generations towards a more humane world.

May 1996


Posted on 1996-05-23
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