Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Memoriam: Mr. Chang Sen-wen

An act of despair by a victim of state-sanctioned demolitions today is the strongest indictment of the government’s inhumane definition of ‘progress’

I first met Chang Sen-wen (張森文) in front of the Executive Yuan on July 3. It was an excruciatingly hot day. He was in a blue shirt, wearing a straw hat, underneath a tent that had temporarily been erected in front of the EY. Next to him, his wife, Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春), was giving interviews to reporters, making her case, as she had done dozens of times over the past three years, against the efforts by the Miaoli County Government to demolish their home and the small pharmacy they operated to widen an intersection on the way to a science park project.

Chang, left, with Peng on July 3
Mr Chang was taciturn, holding the occasional document but rarely engaged in discussions. He gaze was cast downwards, perhaps a presage of his future state of mind. Later that day, he would lose consciousness and was hospitalized. Briefly the following day, during another protest in front of the EY, Mr Chang, still unconscious, was brought in a wheelchair, whereupon most people present began shedding tears.

Fourteen days later, after promises by then-premier and now Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) and having exhausted all legal means, their home was demolished, and their personal belongings — jewelry, clothes, pots, pans, wedding photos — carelessly dumped in a mud pit along with the detritus of their home.

Mr Chang on July 4, accompanied by his wife
Mr Chang never recuperated from the trauma, and descended into deep paranoia. Soon after the eviction, the Chang family moved away from Dapu, feeling they were no longer safe there, given the penchant of Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), the man most responsible for their demise, for threats and intimidation. Mr Chang faded into the background while Ms Peng, forced despite herself to assume the mantle of public figure, continued the battle, making frequent appearances at protests in Taipei.

This morning, Mr Chang left home early (according to police, at 2:10am), leaving his wallet, cell phone and other personal belongings behind. He was declared missing at 10am and search efforts were launched (those efforts were initially hampered when police confirmed that all five cameras installed in the neighborhood were broken, allegedly since Sept. 17, which meant that search teams didn’t even know which direction Mr Chang had headed for).

Hours later, Mr Chang’s body was found face-down in a drainage ditch under a bridge, lifeless, about 200m from where their demolished home one stood. He was 60. As I write this, I am looking at the pictures taken at the scene, of their eldest son on his knees before his father on a stretcher, in a white shirt, gray pants, his arms frozen upwards in rigor mortis, of Ms Peng, devastated, on the ground, her right hand clawing at the soil. An autopsy will be conducted soon.

Ms Peng, 3rd from left, and her son, at the 818 rally
Whoever said that journalists must remain emotionally detached from their subject is asking for the impossible, or expects nothing more from the trade than the cold, clinical regurgitation of daily events. Emotion, a sense of justice, abhorrence for injustice, compassion for the weak, those are the very fuel that aliments one’s passion for the story, that infuses words with life, with meaning. So yes, I have become attached emotionally to the Chang family and the many people who have selflessly fought on their behalf over the months, and to the many others — farmers, workers, Aborigines — whose rights have also been trampled upon by investors, developers, and governments officials whose understanding of modernity and progress goes little beyond the depth of their bank accounts.

So yes, I am sad, angry, and in a very dark place. For the first time in years I am listening to — needing to listen to — Johann Johannsson’s very haunting How We Left Fordlandia. And yes, I curse whoever is responsible for this, all the officials who looked the other way when victims sought help, or who treated the victims as less than human, disposable, mere inconveniences that would eventually disappear.

Mr Chang’s decision to part with life, if indeed it was a suicide, is an indictment of a system that has abandoned society’s most vulnerable, that has lost touch with humanity. You demolish homes, dreams, lives, there are unfortunate consequences.

Mr Chang died of betrayal, of a broken heart. May he rest in peace, and may those who led him down that path rot in the coldest circle of hell. (All photos by the author)

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