Sunday, July 21, 2013

With protesters at MND headquarters, calling for justice in the Hung Chung-chiu case

Taiwanese support the military and genuinely regard it as a tool to defend their nation. But they want transparency and accountability

I was somewhat divided on Saturday morning as I headed over to the Ministry of National Defense headquarters in Taipei to attend a mass rally calling for justice in the recent death of 23-year-old corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) and other mysterious deaths over the years.

Having spent several years covering the Taiwanese military for a local newspaper and specialized publications such as Jane’s Defence Weekly, I have struck many friendships in the armed forces, and have great admiration for several members of the force. Conversely, I also believe that MND owes it to its soldiers to address systemic issues of corruption and cover-ups in its ranks, especially at a time when the military is struggling to attract enough recruits to implement an all-volunteer service by 2015. As a strong proponent of Taiwan’s right to self-defense, I contend that it is essential that cases of criminal neglect and corruption be brought to light and dealt with accordingly to avoid such incidents breaking troop morale, and with that, the armed forces’ back.

Protesters call for justice
So I went, joining the estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people — the majority of them wearing white, as requested by the organizers — who encircled the headquarters building. People carried various placards and banners, with messages such as “Train the body, not become a body” and “We can handle the truth,” in reference to the Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson movie A Few Good Men. The parents of other young soldiers who have died in recent years under suspicious circumstances, and whose efforts to shed light on the tragedies had until now been met with silence and indifference by the authorities, were also present, showing pictures, military badges — and most disturbingly — photographs of the autopsies.

Tsai and his father
I briefly spoke with a young man surnamed Tsai (蔡) and his father, who became famous a few months ago when Tsai, who was then doing his compulsory service, made a scene at Taipei Main Station by refusing to go back to his base, which was caught on film and spread over the Internet. I myself had been too quick to judge Tsai at the time, believing that he was simply too soft for the military, or too selfish to sacrifice some of his time for the sake of his country. After what Tsai and his father told me, and after the terrible fate that befell Hung, I have altered my views on the matter. As it turns out, the young Tsai had grown up in the U.S. and didn’t speak Mandarin, a shortcoming that, he claimed, had led to serious physical abuse. “If my father hadn’t pulled me out of the military, I’d be one of them today,” he told me, jutting his chin towards placards with pictures of dead soldiers next to us.

Several protesters, young men who obviously had already undergone their military service, participated in a number of skits during the protest, parading to army songs with slightly altered lyrics and being “forced” to do push-ups while being abused by mock superiors. In the morning heat, the sun blazing on our heads, they repeatedly made it a point to sing the traditional song reminding soldiers to drink water, and then hydrated themselves — a powerful symbol, given that Hung had died not of “heat stroke,” as the media have referred to it, but rather of disseminated intra-vascular coagulation, or DIC, a much more serious condition.

Remember to drink!
In layman’s terms, DIC means that Hung, his body temperature having risen to 44 degrees Celsius, literally cooked internally (the autopsy pictures attest to the horror of his death). While in confinement, and for what now looks like his efforts to expose corruption among his superiors, Hung was forced to participate in various physical exercises under severe heat and was not given a drop of water to re-hydrate himself. As little as 300cc of water would have saved his life, but that was denied him, and on July 4, after falling in a coma and being taken to hospital, he died.

Throughout the event, organizers kept reminding the protesters to remain peaceful, and that call, despite the palpable anger among young men, women, and parents present, was respected. Otherwise, given the size of the crowd, the protesters would have made short shrift of the police and MP deployed around the MND building.

What soon became evident, both from the speeches and the behavior of the crowd, was that the protest wasn’t against the military, a very important distinction. It was, instead, a loud call for justice and the fair treatment of soldiers in the military, and for MND to fix the problems that had led to Hung’s death and that of others before him. The mood in fact clearly underscored the participants’ commitment to defending the nation. The composition of the crowd, moreover, left no doubt that this country has several young men and women who are willing to fight, and die, defending their country, despite what critics of the armed forces, and of Taiwan’s youth, often claim. It was impossible not to be moved when several thousands of Taiwanese started chanting guo fang bu jia you! (國防部加油!), or, “Go! Go! Ministry of National Defense!”

Andrew Yang addresses the crowd
Then a nervous-looking Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖), whom I have met on several occasions over the years, and who tends to make a lot more sense than many people in his ministry, climbed onto the lead protest vehicle and briefly addressed the crowd, under the close guard of two police officers holding round shields. Revealingly, and somewhat missed in media reports, Yang asked the public to give the ministry a chance to correct its mistakes and to prove that it can do better in the future. Yes, the deputy minister had publicly admitted that MND had committed mistakes in its handling of the Hung case, words that went well beyond what others in his ministry, and within the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, had said to date. He then accepted the list of demands and manifesto from Citizen 1985, the organizer of the protest, and bowed to the crowd in apology, to thundering applause and very limited booing.

Yang did — and probably meant — well, though there are doubts as to his ability to force change within the armed forces. Despite his appointment, which was supported by former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起), a trusted Ma aide, Yang remains a policy man and has often been sidelined within his own ministry.

Parents seeking justice
It should also be said that unlike what critics were saying the following day, Yang never made any promises; he only accepted the manifesto and the demands handed him on Saturday. The deputy minister never vowed that an independent third party would be allowed to conduct an investigation into Hung’s case, and as such, he cannot be accused of breaking his promise when MND late on Saturday night issued a communiqué in which it reaffirmed its determination to keep the matter in the hands of military prosecutors (yes, this is problematic, albeit not unusual for military organizations the world over).

An old hero turns up
As many more people had turned up for the protest (organizers had expected 6,000), a planned march to the Legislative Yuan had to be cancelled. The numbers were a clear indication that the matter is one that they — people in the armed forces, recent recruits, soon-to-be recruits, potential ones, and parents — take very seriously. The ball is now it the MND and Ma administration’s camp. (All photos by the author.)

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