Farewell to Roh Moo-hyun

      May 29, 2009 12:12

      Koreans on Friday sent off former President Roh Moo-hyun, who died last Saturday, in a funeral ceremony at Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. The 63 years of Roh's life were marked by trials and tribulations. Born as the youngest of five children in a poor farming household, Roh had to give up his dreams of going to university. But even after he became a lawyer and entered politics, he lived a maverick life, his poor background and lack of prestigious college education putting him at odds with the establishment and prompting a committed struggle against dictatorial governments and entrenched privileges. He rose to become president, but his unexpected death makes the ups and downs of his life seem transitory.

      Since Roh ended his life on Saturday, over a million people have visited Bongha Village to pay their last respects. Mourners also flocked to 300 memorial altars set up in his honor across the country. On his final journey beyond this world, at least, the former president was anything but lonely. Friday's funeral, which marks the last day of seven days of mourning, called for a composed and solemn atmosphere to ensure he can rest in peace.

      Roh's sudden death and the extraordinary outpouring of grief that followed open many questions that the country will need to address. First of all, the government must put some deep thought into trying to understand the public mood, as demonstrated by the long lines of mourners formed Bongha Village and in front of every memorial altar. In addition to shock and sadness at his tragic end, they also represent public resistance to, and discontent with, the present government. A survey released a few days ago shows the approval ratings of both the president and the ruling party dropping.

      Many Koreans feel that the government's biggest shortcoming is its inability to embrace other views. There are plenty of questions to think about -- whether the prosecution's investigation of the bribery scandal drove Roh to suicide, or whether a series of appointments in this government that favored officials from a particular region ended up alienating the public. The president and ruling party must work hard to win back the hearts and minds of the public by reforming government and the way senior officials are appointed.

      The opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, are already claiming that the incumbent administration is to blame for Roh's death. Former President Kim Dae-jung on Thursday said the entire public probably feels the same way. It is awkward to hear a former president in effect endorse the suicide of another ex-president who was 20 years his junior. Some opposition party lawmakers camped out in front of memorial altars and delivered incendiary speeches every time a mourner gets in an argument or scuffle with police. Until very recently, the DP went out of its way to distance itself from Roh and his politics. Yet now he is dead, the party is trying to turn the atmosphere of mourning into a political issue. This is both insulting to Roh and against political ethics. The DP should resist, not encourage, efforts by certain factions to turn the grief many Koreans feel into anti-government protests.

      This is a time for all Koreans to restrain themselves so the former president can be laid to rest in peace. And when he is buried, we must work together to come up with ways to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

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