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Monk standoff ends as South Korean police arrest

The Guardian, 10 December 2015

Union official Hang Sang-gyun, hiding inside for a month, surrenders to authorities who accuse him of inciting anti-government protests

Seoul, South Korea -- Hundreds of South Korean police have swarmed outside a Buddhist temple and detained a union official who claimed sanctuary a month ago after anti-government protests that turned violent.

<< Han Sang-Gyun, second from right, walks with a Buddhist monk as they exit the Jogye Temple in Seoul to avert a police raid. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

In a massive show of force, uniformed police officers surrounded the Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul where Han Sang-gyun, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, had been holed up for a month. The union said Han agreed to turn himself in.

As a police deadline for Han’s surrender neared, monks and scores of young Buddhist followers formed a human barricade at the entrance to the temple to block police access.

In recent months thousands of people have taken part in anti-government protests over what they see as worsening labour conditions and attacks on personal and political freedoms by conservative President Park Geun-hye.

Police accuse Han of inciting violence during the protest on 14 November.

A police threat to storm the temple and remove Han by force was postponed after intervention by the leader of the Jogye Order – South Korea’s top Buddhist organisation.

The Jogye Order, which has millions of followers, has been mediating with the government ever since Han took refuge in the temple.

One monk told AFP that the activist had been on hunger strike for the past 11 days, taking only a little water and some salt.

The Jogye Order previously warned that any police action would be seen as an act of religious persecution.

“If the police raid the temple it … will be tantamount to a state clampdown on the Jogye Order and on the whole Buddhist movement in South Korea,” it said in a statement.

South Korean churches and temples have a long history of providing refuge for political activists, most notably in the 1980s when many young pro-democracy activists who were on the run from police sought sanctuary in Catholic churches.

Although religious sanctuary has no legal force, South Korean police have traditionally observed it for fear of triggering a public backlash.

Police were widely criticised when they did raid the Jogye Temple to bring out seven labour activists in 2002.

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