Monday, April 28, 2014

2014 Lotus Lantern Festival and Sewol Memorial March

On Saturday night a couple of friends and I went down to the Cheonggyecheon to see the lantern display they had set up in honour of the Buddha's birthday, which is on May 6th according to the Roman/solar calendar this year. We didn't bother trying to see the parade I went to last year; just took a nice leisurely stroll along the stream.  

There were lots of cute kids running around and lovely lanterns, including this one, which is about as metal as Buddhism gets:

We were sitting outside a convenience store enjoying the mild weather when the sound of approaching chanting/shouting caught my attention. I set down my soju-strawberry milk (drinking in this country is going to be the end of us all) and stood up to see which direction it was coming from. As expected, it was a large column of people shouting anti-government slogans in protest of the happening and handling of the Sewol disaster. The guys finished their beers and we set off to follow them.

Interesting juxtaposition, this.

They'd told me that they had seen several hundred police officers with riot shields in Myeongdong on their way to Jongno that night, but I didn't really expect to see them myself. South Korean police must be some of the least intimidating in the world (tying with or coming in close second to the Japanese) as they are not only completely useless and lacking something to do most of the time, but they don't carry batons, mace, tasers or anything else, really, especially not guns. I mean, some of them are supposed to carry guns sometimes, but I'm fairly confident that most of those aren't even real. 

The riot police - especially in the Gwanghamun area, where protests usually happen - are also supposed to have a special type of long baton for suppressing demonstrations that turn south like the U.S. beef import ones did a few years ago, but I didn't see any of those, either. Their uniforms were also very thin and flimsy, more reminiscent of a crossing guard's than a cop's, because that was their primary role in this event. It was an intentional show of anti-force - an impressive presence mitigated by lack of body armour, helmets and weapons - being used as a non-threatening tactic in and of itself to keep a peaceful protest involving grieving relatives and many small children from impeding traffic or getting too disorganised. The number of plain-clothes officers was also pretty impressive, and many of them seemed to go unnoticed as they gently directed people onto or off the sidewalk and kept things in order.

Anyway, despite all of that, I've never seen such a police presence in my life. Full regiments of them were stationed at various points along the protest route, suddenly appearing around corners here and there like benevolent, reflective chartreuse phalanxes. I wanted to get photos of course, but since I only had my phone on me (which I'm still kicking myself for), I figured it wasn't worth it to actually approach them and risk getting it taken or having them delete my other photos and videos, seeing as how a couple of them had been eyeballing it.

We marched alongside the well-organised possibly mile-long column of people carrying various matching signs and little lanterns made of paper cups and artificial candles from near the Pagoda building next to the stream though Jongno, then Myeongdong, past City Hall and finally to Gwanghamun Plaza, just down the street from Gyeongbok Palace.

Anon spotted.

What remained of the protesters - maybe a couple hundred people - assembled at what was clearly planned as the finishing point and listened to a woman with a mic on a small stage for a few minutes before dispersing completely. Unfortunately there was no one with us who could translate what she was saying, but it definitely had something to do with criticising president Park Geun Hye and thanking everyone for coming out in support.

How so many people who were that upset disappeared so quickly, I do not know. Actually I was in disbelief, thinking that they must have continued on somewhere else, but I was wrong. Because the anger over this situation permeates all levels and facets of Korean society and is possibly even causing a major social identity crisis through stark and sudden self-awareness, we thought there was a small chance the whole thing could turn violent. It wouldn't have taken much, you know? Numbers aside, the police could have been overrun and overwhelmed fairly quickly because of all the reasons aforementioned, especially if further protests started up in other areas. We did also spot what may have been water trucks waiting in the eaves, but still.

I really don't know how incensed Koreans need to be to start rioting; perhaps the overall atmosphere in the country now is too pensive and somber for that sort of thing. Indeed, there's even a special type of depression afflicting nearly everyone in some measure as a result of the senselessness of this tragedy that stems from the Confucian sense of personal culpability being so widely discussed across the Interwebs in its wake. 
Some Koreans have tried to explain han to me, and while I mostly get it, I obviously can't empathise fully, not having been raised in a society with a closely-linked collective consciousness and commonality such as this. Everyone here goes about their day almost as if they're automated; emotions, opinions and issues of all sorts are often completely suppressed and nothing shocking ever really happens, so I guess it's that much more significant a blow when someone actually does get hurt or killed, since it's so rare.

Anyway, here's the video I got of most of the protest. 
Keep your eyes open for Anon guy; he was even wearing a cape:

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