Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Sunflower Revolution continues

Several tens of thousands of Taiwanese, young and old, continued the standoff at the legislature on Friday amid fears of a police crackdown

The noon, March 21 deadline came and went, and President Ma Ying-jeou, who’s been having a terrible week, refused to meet the demands made by the activists who have occupied the Legislative Yuan since Tuesday over a controversial services trade agreement with China.

Braving a cold front and overnight showers, the students and supporters remained undeterred as rumors circulated throughout the day that the order had been given to expel the 300 or so activists from the main chamber of the legislature. As promised on Thursday if President Ma didn’t meet their demands, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its smaller ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), held their own rallies outside the legislature.

Lunch time, at the TSU protest zone
Besides the generational difference between the students who had gathered at the legislature since Tuesday night and the participants in the DPP and TSU rallies — whose average age must have been at least thrice that of the former — another contrast was the language of the speeches, which was markedly ideological where that of the youth is pragmatic. Having listened to hundreds of speeches in the past four days, it wasn’t hard to see that, overlapping interests notwithstanding, the youth’s approach to the problem was likely to have much greater appeal with the general public than that of the green-camp politicians, who once again occasionally resorted to language that divides (i.e, “mainlander” versus “Taiwanese”). Additionally, it was hard not to think that none of this would have been possible had matters been left in the hands of green politicians, who now were more than happy to capitalize on the youth’s months of efforts.

Both these things — the age difference and ideology — again highlighted how unlikely it was that the students would be the pawns of, or have been misled by, the DPP, as the Ma administration and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), as well as Beijing mouthpieces, continue to allege.

Meanwhile, police were busy erecting barriers and laying barbed wire outside the Executive Yuan and in front of the Presidential Office on Ketagalan Boulevard.

As night approached, waves of people, the majority of them young people, converged on the legislature. By 9pm, the entire area was completely packed and organizers had to ask people to move elsewhere. On the side of the building were youth had gathered since Wednesday, moving around was nigh impossible; covering a mere 100 meters took 10-15 minutes. Crowd estimates are an art rather than a science; by this author’s estimate, the crowd had very likely surpassed the 30,000 who were said to have gathered at the legislature the previous night. 

Freedom of speech
All over the site, citizens were invited to address the crowd to share their views on the pact; small groups walked around displaying various placards; bands played music. Organizers distributed food (rice porridge) and beverages; others collected garbage, directed the crowds, or ensured an orderly process at the chemical toilets, whose population has also exploded in recent days. Some read books (one was absorbed in a Chinese version of Brave New World). A number of dogs as well as a duck, equally worried about the negative repercussions of implementing the services trade pact, strutted around, bearing flags and other apparel.

Throughout the night there were rumors that water cannon trucks were on the way and that police would use teargas. Ma had given the order, it was said, but immediately human rights associations filed a lawsuit against him and the police chief saying such a move would endanger the safety of students and police alike. Large groups of police offices bearing PVC shields and batons eventually turned up, leading to speculation that the raid was about top begin, but this was a false alarm; they were there to take over the previous shift. As the off-duty police left the building, protesters opened a corridor for them began cheering and applauding them. There was many a teary eye among the cops as they left. A few were smiling, obviously moved. One mid-aged police shook hands with a few protesters and thanked them profusely. For anyone out there who continue to claim that the protesters are violent — including Taiwan’s envoy to the U.S. King Pu-tsung, who repeated the term four times in less than a minute during a press conference on Thursday — the scene put a lie to that.

Citizens give speeches all over the site
The students have said hey will continue to occupy the legislature until Ma, who seems to have lost the support of Legislative Speaker Wang Jyn-ping, agrees to all their demands — an apology, withdrawal of the the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and that priority be given to passing rules that would stipulate the legislature’s powers to oversee all future cross-strait agreements. Protests were also held in Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. The students have also called for nationwide protests at KMT headquarters on Saturday (barricades were already going up around the HQ in Taipei on Friday night). Word has it that the KMT HQ in Kaohsiung is already surrounded.

It was a difficult day for Ma. First, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin said the protests were legal and that protesters could stay there indefinitely. Tainan Mayor William Lai, meanwhile, told Ma, who had dinner with his mother, was not welcome to Tainan for a scheduled ceremony and that he should stay in Taipei to deal with the crisis.

Meanwhile, a TVBS poll showed interesting numbers, with 48% of respondents supporting the students and 40% opposing them. Seventy percent were in favor of an item-by-item review of the CSSTA, while only 8% hoped for a quick vote on the whole package — basically the KMT’s position. Forty eight percent said they opposed the CSSTA, while 21% supported it, a drop of 11% since last October; 69% said they were not very clear about the content of the agreement, a drop of 16% from October. (Photos by the author)

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