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Occupying Taiwan’s parliament

Publication Date : 28-03-2014

 

"If you cannot tell where the rubbish should go, I will stuff your head inside!"

The cheerful threat on the hand-scrawled notice, perched above a collection point for carefully sorted trash, is probably the most outwardly autocratic sign in Taiwan's parliament.

The legislative chamber has been occupied by students and other activists since early last week in protest over a service trade pact with China.

But there are no rowdy fights that Taiwanese legislators are notorious for. Instead, there is a display of camaraderie and goodwill, with the occupiers holding small-group discussions in the day and sing-a-longs at night before bedding down amid the pews where lawmakers usually sit.

Near the podium under founding father Sun Yat-sen's giant portrait where the Speaker sits, daily necessities are neatly arranged for whoever needs them. To show solidarity, most wear the same luridly green or red plastic slippers that came from the same donor.

As the occupation moves into its 11th day and as the initial euphoria from capturing the parliament begins to flag, the students are also learning to grapple with all the messiness of the democracy they say they are championing.

It is just one of the reasons a meeting with President Ma Ying-jeou, an invitation he extended on Tuesday, is unlikely to happen in the next few days. Neither does the stand-off look like it is going to end any time soon.

In fact, the students kicked things up a notch yesterday by calling for a protest march on Sunday, which will end in a rally in front of the Presidential Office.
They also escalated their demands for both meeting Ma as well as leaving the legislature.

To vacate it, they have two conditions: One is to withdraw the trade agreement to open up service sectors on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which they say was the product of ''black box politics'' - inked with China in secret and approved by a legislature committee early last week without the clause-by-clause review that was promised. The other condition is for all legislators to support a new law to establish a mechanism that monitors future negotiations with Beijing. The ruling Kuomintang has rejected this.

Meanwhile, the proposed meeting with Ma - which initially got a favourable response from the students - now has more roadblocks. They want him to agree to discuss their demands. They also want him to lift the party whip on KMT legislators.

The students believe that they are engaging in ''a more genuine exercise in democracy'' than its elected occupants.

Taking a break from her organic chemistry textbook, undergraduate Duan Shun-hsing, 18, said: ''Ma is the President, while also controlling the legislature as chairman of the ruling party. He has too much power and is trying to ride roughshod over us.

"So we are representing people's power here instead."

And indeed, in living out their democratic ideals, the 100-plus students split into groups of 10 to 20, earnestly discussing various issues such as the Ma meeting. Suggestions are collated, then passed on to a higher council of leaders.

Differences and dissenters do exist. Some want to know if they are being too hardline. Others wonder whether the call for a supervisory mechanism is "too idealistic", as geology undergraduate Henry Hsu, 21, put it.

Activist Linda Chuang, 32, who left the chamber after spending a night there, wants more accountability from student leaders in explaining further the ultimate decisions. Student leader Lin Fei-fan tells The Straits Times that the council strives to seek consensus via communication: ''It is key that all views are considered.''

And as some exit, they are replaced by some of the thousands of supporters sitting outside. The unceasing flow of fresh blood is key to keeping the occupation going.

Other factors include Ma's unpopularity, with his approval rating now at 9 per cent. Already, both opposition and KMT politicians are carefully positioning themselves for elections this year and in 2016.

Beyond that, the looming so-called China factor - and the anxieties engendered about its growing influence in Taiwan - has brought many to the protest.

Delivery driver Lon Long, 45, who made the long drive from southern Taiwan to volunteer at the protest, said: ''If we sign this, Taiwan is finished.''

Whatever the reasons that propel them to stay on, what seems clear is that many are in it for the long haul.

''How long will I be here? For as long as it takes,'' says Hsu.

 

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