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Champions of Democracy

Third in the series of posts by Dhruba Basu, who attended the Asian Youth Leadership Forum for Democracy in Korea. About 60 youth, from 23 different Asian countries, mostly aged 20-30 years and involved in some combination of research, activism or mobilisation, descended in South Korea to discuss democracy in Asia and the scope for the youth to play a role in shaping it.

Gwangju is a city of great significance for Koreans, especially the members of the generation that lived through the country’s democracy movement. It was the site, after all, of two seminal events in the modern history of Korea: 1) the 1929 students’ anti-colonial movement that spread nationwide and inspired the resistance that led to the withdrawal of the Japanese and 2) the students’ uprising of 1980 that catalysed years of protests and international pressure in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, finally resulting in the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1987.

The Gwangju Asia Forum is ‘a platform for discussing about Asia’s human rights, democracy and peace and sharing alternative ideas of making a better future.’ The Gwangju Prize for Human Rights was instituted in 2000 and is awarded to ‘selected individuals or organisations...who have made significant contributions to the advancement of human rights, unity, solidarity and world peace. The Special Award was established in 2011 and is awarded every two years to those ‘who work for the improvement of human rights by means of journalism, culture and literature’.

The winner of the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights 2017 is Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattaraksa from Thailand. Born in 1991, Pai was studying law at Khon Khaen University when he became a member of a human rights activism group called Dao Din. Dao Din (“Stars and Earth”) emerged during the corruption-mired rule of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to work on issues related to the environment and livelihood rights of villagers in Thailand’s impoverished north-eastern regions, where the exploitation of natural resources by private corporations had led to widespread impoverishment and hardship.

Pai was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2014 after the Shinawatra government was overthrown in a military coup, when he, along with four other members of Dao Din, staged a three-fingered salute during a speech by the newly installed dictator General Prayut Chanocha. The salute was borrowed from the movie Hunger Games – it is identified with acts of defiance. This represented an expansion in Dao Din’s thematic focus, which had begun to include pro-democracy activism – they were opposed to Shinawatra’s corrupt practices, but rejected the military coup more vehemently.

The three-finger salute landed the young activists in a military camp for ‘attitude adjustment’, but that was only a taster of the state-backed persecution that was to follow, which has particularly targeted Pai. In early December 2016, he was detained for violations under the Thai law known as lese majeste, which punishes perceived insults to the Thai King with up to 15 years’ imprisonment. The offence in this instance was Pai’s act of sharing a critical BBC Thai article about King Rama X on social media. The article in question was shared by more than 2,400 other people, but his has been the only arrest (although there have been over 60 arrests in connection with lese majeste violations since the 2014 coup).

Initially, Pai was released on bail, but that was revoked because he uploaded photos of himself celebrating outside court friends. He also refused to remove the post. Six of his bail applications were subsequently rejected and his detention was prolonged for months, with the result that he was unable to take his college exams. Court proceedings formally began in March this year, and the decision was announced on August 15: it handed him a 2 ½-year jail term. This case has prompted the United Nations to release statements condemning lese majeste and declaring that there is no place for such laws in a democracy.

Pai’s parents travelled to Gwangju to receive the Human Rights Prize on his behalf. “The 2017 Gwangju Award Committee for Human Rights admires the bravery and love of justice [of Jatupat] who fights against dictatorship and violation of human rights. Your struggle helps ignite the interest in politics among young people,” read part of the statement from the award committee.

The accompanying Special Award at Gwangju went to Serge “Smokey” Bambara. Born in Burkina Faso, Bambara is 46, a musician and human rights activist who is using hip hop to propagate a campaign for social and political reform in his country. He teamed up with other artists to set up a group called Le Balai Citoyen (“The Citizen’s Broom”), which is spearheading a drive to combat corruption by politicians.

On Oct. 30, 2014, Le Balai Citoyen led a campaign to oppose an attempt by Blaise Compaore, who had been President of Burkina Faso for 27 years, to extend his rule. The resulting civic resistance ultimately forced Compaore to resign. His family was forced to go into hiding for a time after they were threatened and after Bambara’s recording studio and house were bombed in 2015.

Bambara declined membership of a council for the transitional government and continues his work with Le Balai Citoyen, expressing his philosophy and convictions with pride and defiance through his music and gaining popularity among the young. “Through his actions, Serge has exemplified the role of the citizen in protecting democracy,” the contest judges said, explaining why they had selected him.

It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that Smockey’s efforts are influencing democratic movements across the entire African continent. And yet, in a season of movements for change that began with the failed Occupy and the Arab Spring uprisings, it is telling that the success of the movement in Burkina Faso did not make it to newspapers, television screens or social media feeds in any genuinely noticeable way.

Read all three blog posts:

Part 1: How to Make or Break a Democracy
Part 2: Out of the Frying Pan, Into Democracy
Part 3: Champions of Democracy

Photo credit: Backbone Campaign (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

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