SEOUL — AS I WRITE THIS thousands of monks and laypeople are converging on city hall. They are unloading from buses that have carried them, along with their signs and banners of protest, from all the corners of the country. Great gray-robed masses make their way across crowded sidewalks, and hung high above the street are PA systems broadcasting dissent in waves of chanting and drums. There is a thrumming energy that emanates beyond the police lines, that sends ripples through the steel and glass.
These people are demanding an apology, they are demanding change. They see the government as isolated from the people, wrapped up in Christianity while a hefty chunk of the country’s faithful adhere to an indigenous brand of Buddhism. Whether their cries of foul are completely legitimate appears difficult to assess, but even some Protestants here admit that the president — a staunch Christian who earlier, as Seoul’s mayor, said he dedicated the city to God — might be throwing around his religious weight.
UPDATE September 1 — Dissent continued to foam over the weekend. A local paper reported that about 2,000 people joined in a gathering at Jogye Temple, the heart of the Buddhist order that organized last Wednesday’s rallies, which was titled “a service to condemn the Lee Myung-bak administration’s destruction of the Constitution and religious discrimination.” On Saturday, at the same temple, a high-ranking monk attempted to disembowel himself in protest. (He was rushed to the hospital, and his injures were not fatal.)
The force with which these demonstrations have arisen begs the question: Why? Is there good reason for the anger? Speaking in real terms, President Lee has filled his administration with people who attend his own right-leaning church — the now-famous Somang Presbyterian. Major Buddhist sites have been left off of new government maps, while the smallest of churches are given mention. The chief of the National Police Agency, Eo Cheong-soo, appeared on a poster promoting police personnel’s “fasting prayers for the evangelization of all the police.” A presidential secretary reportedly called demonstrators opposed to U.S. beef imports “a host of Satans.”
In terms of the more nebular realm of history, the current uprising is perhaps afforded added momentum due to an anxiety of repeating the past. As blogger Korea Dispatch points out, many of the monks who are participating in the rallies now remember the early 1980s, when then President Chun Doo-hwan mobilized a massive police force to arrest over 150 monks labeled as dissidents. Chun forced the head of the Jogye order to step down, accusing him of “corrupt activities.” Buddhists were beaten and tortured — as many political dissidents were then.
The difference now is that Lee’s brand of religious bias apparently has more to do with a fervent belief in evangelism, rather than a simple greed for power. In this way, the current situation is perhaps even more dangerous. Indeed, we need not look far back for vivid examples of what brutal kinds of things humans can do to each other in the name of God.