Many don masks in protest at Seoul rally

Hundreds taking part in the rally wore masks yesterday to protest against a proposed ban on masks at demonstrations after President Park Geun Hye compared masked protesters to ISIS terrorists.
Hundreds taking part in the rally wore masks yesterday to protest against a proposed ban on masks at demonstrations after President Park Geun Hye compared masked protesters to ISIS terrorists.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Thousands join anti-government rally against planned labour and education reforms

Tens of thousands of people joined an anti-government rally held in downtown Seoul, opposing planned labour and education reforms and calling for President Park Geun Hye's resignation.

Many turned up yesterday wearing all kinds of face masks to protest against a proposed ban on masks at demonstrations after Ms Park compared masked protesters to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists. This was the second mass rally in a month.

About 20,000 policemen were deployed to maintain order as protesters marched about 3.5km from Seoul Plaza to Seoul National University Hospital. A 68-year-old man has been warded there after being injured by water cannon used by riot police during last month's rally. The Nov 14 rally drew more than 64,000 people and resulted in violent clashes between demonstrators and the police, who fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

The police had tried to ban the second protest due to concerns over public safety, but their decision was overturned by the court on Thursday, after the organisers vowed repeatedly to hold a peaceful rally. Police said 14,000 people turned up for yesterday's rally, although organisers estimated 50,000.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn on Friday reiterated the government's stand to "root out illegal, violent protests... in order to establish the rule of law".

The gathering at Seoul Plaza yesterday was largely peaceful, with over 100 civic groups - including labour unions, farmer associations and the national teachers union - holding flags and chanting slogans.

Hundreds of protesters wore white face masks printed with the words "Park Geun Hye resign", and many held handwritten placards saying "Park Geun Hye out".

A middle-aged man wearing a mask was seen holding up a sign that says: "I am not ISIS", and chanting the same message - in a clear reference to Ms Park's earlier comments on masked protesters.

Office worker Shim Sang Myung, 50, told The Sunday Times he and his colleagues wore face masks to exercise their right to political freedom. "We have the worst President ever in Korean history. We can't accept the labour reforms, the state history textbook, and how the Sewol ferry incident was handled," he said.

Unhappiness with the Park administration has been growing since the Sewol ferry sinking incident last year, with critics accusing the government of mishandling rescue operations.

The government has also been lambasted for replacing privately published school history textbooks with state-authored versions. Critics say the move is an attempt to whitewash military dictators' oppression of democracy in the country until the mid-1980s.

The protesters are also upset over the government's proposed labour reforms that will allow companies to easily dismiss underperforming workers and cut wages of senior staff .

However, according to a Gallup poll released in September, there is public support for Ms Park's labour reforms. Of the 1,002 respondents, over 70 per cent supported the plan.

Another Gallup poll conducted earlier last week showed that 60 per cent of 1,005 respondents supported Ms Park's call to ban masks at rallies. Only 32 per cent of them opposed the plan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Many don masks in protest at Seoul rally'. Print Edition | Subscribe