Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

和平! 人權! An Account of the Executive Yuan Protest

I'm still somewhat shaken from what I just saw. Some 500 students have been peacefully gathered in front of the Executive Yuan for the last day or so to protest the current Parade and Assembly Law (集會遊行法), the abuse of which has led to so much trouble over the last couple of days. The current law restricts the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, by forcing them to apply for permits which the government may deny at will after reviewing the protest topic, allows the government unrestricted rights to close off large areas from protesters, and allows police to forcibly disperse protesters even if they are not violent. The students are demanding the law be revised to require the government to grant permits upon receiving a notification without the current content review ("government shall allow" vs. the current "government may grant a permit"), while requiring police to follow the rule of law and due process in all arrests and detentions. In other words, the law should protect the rights of protesters - not restrict them.

Despite numerous attempts by partisans to connect them to the DPP, the students have steadfastly refused to align themselves with any political party. In fact, speaker after speaker made it clear that while the current Parade and Assembly Law is a relic from martial law, successive administrations from both parties have lost interest in amending or revising the law after assuming the reigns of power, even as they claimed to oppose it while in the opposition... as the saying goes, power corrupts. Even the power that you might not use. Others attempted to link them to the few violent protesters over the last day or so - a patently false claim as the protesters promptly ejected any would-be participants who seemed too agitated, or too close to any partisan cause.

The protesters made it clear that they were not anti-police - in fact, they made a conscientious effort to differentiate between rank and file police officers, who were forced to carry out oppressive policies from their superiors. The current Parade and Assembly Law encourages that type of behavior from the government, victimizing protesters and police alike. As such the real responsibility lies with those who give the orders, and the laws that enable them. Under these considerations, the protesters' demands include apologies from President Ma and Premier Liu, as well as the resignations of the Directors of the National Police Agency and National Security Bureau for the unprecedented abuses of police power over the past few days. Further information can be found in the statement of protest.

Watching the live feed and narration provided by a few students with a webcam, I was struck by the orderliness and relatively relaxed atmosphere throughout. The students spent most of the time calmly seated in front of the gate of the Executive Yuan, listening to speakers who spoke about the need for reform and the rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully. There was little anger towards police, even as the police raised placards declaring the assembly to be unlawful. (The protesters responded with their own placards reading "Dissent! Police action is unlawful"). Students handed police officers water and flowers, making it clear that they bore them no ill will. Unfortunetely, TVBS, true to its acronym, promptly ran a story claiming that the students supported the actions of the police over the past few days. When this gross distortion became known, the protesters faced the TVBS reporter on scene and chanted "TVBS 不要臉!" ("TVBS, have you no shame?")

By the start of Friday morning, rumors were flying that the police would move in at 4PM. Earlier in the morning, the secretary to Premier Liu came out amid chants of "Ma, Liu apologize!", "NPA and NSB chiefs resign!", "Amend the Parade and Assembly Law!". In response to the students' questions, he provided evasive answers, first claiming that the KMT had supported revising the law over the past 8 years of DPP administration and trying to pass the blame off to the DPP. But he could not answer questions from the protesters as to why the KMT had not done so now that it holds a supermajority in the Legislative Yuan and the Presidency, nor could he provide any assurances or timetables as to when it would be revised in accordance with the protesters' demands. Flustered, he quickly retreated back into the building as the protesters declared his response unsatisfactory and his attitude patronizing. A vote was taken and the protesters agreed to remain until their demands were met.

As the clock neared 4PM, a sense of uncertainty was in the air, as larger groups of police alternately congregated and dispersed. Citizens came with donations of food, water, and blankets. As the time ticked away, the students performed a roll call by institution. Cheers went out as "National Taiwan University!", "National Taipei University of Education!" and other institutions of higher learning went out. But the loudest cheer was reserved for a lone voice which shouted: "Central Police University!" (I don't know who you are buddy, but I salute you sir!).

At 4PM, three large police buses pulled up in the street behind the protesters, with squads of police officers emerging. "Remember!" the organizers shouted: "No violence! It is not the fault of the police that their orders are unconstitutional! No one is wrong here. Remain peaceful! We reassemble in 2 hours at Liberty Square!".

Sitting on the ground, the 500+ students linked hands and sang, in English, "We Shall Overcome". As the last lines of "We are not afraid today" faded, and the crowd of police grew larger, the students chanted "和平!" ("Peace!").

Then suddenly, the police officers turned around, reboarded their buses and left. The students cheered... it was as if a miracle had occurred. Plans were made to stay till a satisfactory answer was given by the government.

The moment proved to be short lived. Rumors began flying again that the police intended to detain them, then release them somewhere far away from public transportation. Calls went out across the web as individuals and groups promised to provide transportation for any stranded students.

About 20 minutes later, a large phalanx of police carrying riot shields poured out of the Executive Yuan and the 3 police buses which had suddenly returned. As the police surrounded the students, the students chanted "Peace!" again, joined by a growing crowd of citizens in the street. A group from the pan-green aligned Taiwan North Society attempted to offer their assistance, but were politely and firmly rejected by the students. "We are not rejecting your ideas, but we reject partisanship in this demonstration."

Finally, police officers began to forcibly remove the students dragging the limp, unresisting students, still chanting, into the police buses. The students began chanting "人權!" ("Human Rights!"), along with the crowd which quickly joined in.

Then the feed cut off.

It took over an hour to remove all 500 students. The latest report from the restored feed indicates that they were dropped off at the rear gate of National Taiwan University. The protesters are now reassembling at Liberty Square, welcoming anyone who is willing to join in peaceably, without political flags or placards, and without a partisan agenda. Reports indicate taxi drivers who heard of their plight are picking them up and taking them to Liberty Square for free.

The gate of the Executive Yuan is now clear of students. But the citizens who gathered have now taken up the students' cause, launching their own sit-in, and are now chanting the students' three demands: "Ma and Liu apologize", "NPA and NSB chiefs step down", and "Amend the Parade and Assembly Law!" The crowd is still growing as I type this, chanting "同學加油!" ("Go students!")

I am an engineering graduate student. For a long time, I considered myself cynical about anyone who randomly invoked Godwin's Law. The last few days, and what I saw today have now changed that. The Parade and Assembly Law isn't just a blue problem or a green problem, it is a threat to all of our civil liberties. Citizens do not spontaneously become violent - and while there are always people in any demonstration who simply seek to cause chaos, they are vastly outnumbered by ordinary citizens who simply wish to express their dissent. It is only when those in power seek to use their authority to silence dissenting voices that good people may feel that they have little recourse. Successive administrations from both parties have been loath to relinquish the promise of almost unlimited authority offered by the current Parade and Assembly Law. What we saw over the last two days is simply the culmination of that process. The government could not resist the temptation to overstep their bounds far beyond what was required for public safety, and ended up facing the inevitable backlash.

Today I saw peaceful idealistic students not so unlike myself who chose to show resolve and restraint in the face of great adversity. Not one broke and ran. Not one struck back at the police officers, and the police officers did not use excessive force on the students. Everyone stayed on message. The students may have begun the movement, but it is now something bigger as nonstudents have joined in as well.

As the police officers carried the students away, the voice of the student announcer on the feed broke as he said "This is how a police state begins. It's been 20 years since martial law ended and the law still hasn't been amended!"

For once, I am inclined to agree.

Protest photos from participants.

Live feed from Liberty Square.

Several similar protests are now being organized by students across Taiwan. In particular, a sit-in is now planned in front of the Kaohsiung Police Department.


TCL said...

Thanks for the post. It's a moving account of what transpired in Taipei during the last few days. I was born in Taiwan but grew up in the States. I worked for a while in Congress and staffers and members of Congress have always cited Taiwan as prime example of a democratic East Asian country. I'm quite sad to see the latest developments.

Not sure if you're continuing your studies in the States or have returned to TW. But keep up the good feed.

BTW - I linked my latest blog entry to your EY protest entry. I hope you don't mind.

Haitien said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm still in the US though I will be returning to Taiwan for mandatory military service when I graduate in about a year. I appreciate the link.

I started following this protest after seeing reports of police excesses on the first few days of the Chinese visit - before the other unrelated violent clashes took place on 11/7. I admit that I initially interpreted the oppressive behavior as being the KMT reverting to its authoritarian roots, but after watching this particular protest for a while, I do believe that the students have a point and the problem is more endemic. The current law tempts whomever is in power, irrespective of party, to wield it against their opponents, and thereby encourages confrontational and/or violent behavior by protestors who feel that their voices are being muzzled.

TCL said...


I am a bit disturbed that the events received very little international media coverage. I asked a Sydney this morning and she hadn't heard anything about this issue. Am I wrong or is there really a dearth of int'l coverage?

Good luck on your studies and your service. My dad was in the TW army too.

Haitien said...

I haven't really seen any international coverage, I doubt we'll see anything unless the movement snowballs in a few days. I've been getting most of my information from PTT and various blogs and webcasts.

The mainstream media is interpreting the whole thing in a partisan light, with TVBS, 中天, and 東森 trying to link it to the DPP, while FTV and SET seem to be more or less reporting the students' demands.

The movement began as being nonpartisan, and the organizers are trying to keep it that way, though a lot of pan-green organizations are trying to get involved. Whether or not this whole thing works likely depends on how well the students can resist partisan influences and stay on message.

ifan said...

The last link about another sit-in is lost. Is that website hacked?

Haitien said...

Sorry, changed the link to another site with compiled information about all activities.

TCL said...

Agreed regarding staying non-partisan. But concerned about the lack of international coverage. History shows that few governments change w/o internationalized pressure.

The whole wider protest (meaning not just the students) seems kinda muddied up. The few NY Times and WaPo coverage focused on the trade deal. Mentions of protest focused on the ROC/PRC split. Perhaps some talks about the protest went into the green/blue area.

I imagine you'd agree that the real issue is the rollback of civil rights. In that regard I think the students have the right focus and need to keep pumping out the consistent message they've been so far.

I hate to politicize it, but is there an exit strategy? What happens if days or weeks from now the government continues to ignore the protest? What's the next step?

Is there any sense to start mobilizing opinions in U.S.? Congressional or otherwise?

Haitien said...

One thing I've noticed is that most reporters covering Taiwan tend to do the bare minimum as far as reporting goes, which usually means a few specific lines, then cutting and pasting "conventional wisdom" about "split in 1949... DPP provokes China... China thinks... etc". As for the wider protests, I'm not too surprised about them being tarred and feathered. Large protests of any stripe tend to attract a chaotic element interested in causing mayhem (see pan-blue protests during Chen's term), but the government is doing its absolute best to portray all the marchers as a bunch of violent country bumpkins, while ignoring the majority who were peaceful. It doesn't help that most reporters aren't even stationed in Taiwan, and simply compile their reports from sources in Beijing or Hong Kong.

Agree that the real issue for the students is is rolling back of civil rights. The whole protest was organized in the day or so before the violent clashes, in response to the government suppressing anything that Chen Yunlin might consider "offensive". Plenty of people of all political stripes were incised when they saw ROC flags being confiscated (while people with PRC flags were allowed to stand in restricted areas), peaceful demonstrators being harassed, governmental foot dragging on the issuing of demonstration permits, and other excesses. These simply illustrated how easily the existing law could be abused if the government so chose.

I'm not aware of an exit strategy. The students seem to be making things up as they go along. At this point, the government is hoping to out wait them, while trying to portray them as partisan.