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Rallies for dead conscript not just a plea for justice, but for humanity
Publication Date : 06-08-2013
In one corner of the political heart of Taipei this weekend, lawmakers were once again engaging in the scuffles for which Taiwan is infamous overseas. Instead of opinions being exchanged there were punches and the pelting of bottles in the “battle for the rostrum” during a special session of the Legislature focusing on a proposed Fourth Nuclear Power Plant referendum and a trade pact with mainland China. Outside the Legislative Yuan, equally excited protesters clashed with the police in their attempt to get inside. One protester stripped naked and reportedly “attacked” the Legislative Yuan with his urine.
In another corner only a few hundred metres away, at least 100,000 people (the organiser put the number at 250,000, police at 100,000) occupied Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office to demand truth and justice regarding the death of Army Corporal Hung Chung-chiu, who died after being forced to perform a vigorous regime of exercises as part of a solitary confinement punishment. Protesters expressed their anger peacefully. They made rallying calls. They mocked what they see as a disappointing official investigation through a satirical play. They sang. They shed tears as Hung's mother shared her heart-wrenching story. They held up printouts of the “eye of the citizens” to warn the government that the people are watching. And they peacefully dispersed once the event was over.
The Hung protest is the latest example of a new form of public movement in the social-media age, apparently free of influence from major political forces. While the lack of information on the makeup of the rally's organisers, the activist group Citizen 1985, does demand attention, the demonstration clearly sets itself apart from typical political rallies. In fact, lawmakers who did speak at the event were given the cold shoulder regardless of their political colour. The protesters shrugged as the politicians promised justice or reform, simply warning them to keep their word or else.
While there was a palpable sense of anger among the crowd, people were not incited to seek confrontations or demand quick resolutions. While there were charismatic speakers at the event, they were but a sideshow to the central figure — a mother who fights for justice for her dead son but who called on the protesters to let go of their hatred.
Some commentators and Internet users have questioned the Hung family's constant presence in the media and their apparent unwillingness to be satisfied by the government's responses. Hung's case has led directly and indirectly to the fall of a defence minister, multiple apologies from the president, a promise of huge national compensation, and the indictment of 18 military personnel including a major general once seen as a rising star in the Army. So goes the questioners' reasoning — what more could the family reasonably expect?
That question highlights exactly the problem behind the failure of the government to grasp, let alone respond to, the current situation. It highlights the detachment from human values commonly seen in bureaucracies.
The Ma administration was swift in responding once it realised the severity of the public outrage over Hung's death. But its actions, while drastic in a governmental and bureaucratic sense, were bland and did not even signal any attempt to connect to the Hungs or the people.
From a bureaucratic point of view, sacking a defence minister, charging 18 men and handing out a big paycheck should indeed be more than enough to handle the repercussions of a wrongful death. But the bereaved do not want to be handled like a problem, they want to be treated like humans, like real people. In this sense, the swiftness of the sacking and indictments was actually the opposite of what the bereaved expect, as these actions signal the government's desperation not to investigate the matter but to keep it quiet.
Saturday's rally sends a message not only to those responsible for Hung's death but also to a government long dulled by its bureaucratic mindset. The new generations of Taiwanese are increasingly responsive to public issues and increasingly difficult to manipulate or placate.