Let 118 Sunflowers BloomA total of 118 people, including Lin Fei-fan and Huang Kuo-chang, will be prosecuted for the 318 and 323 occupations and a smaller incident on 411
If we could be 100% certain that the court system in Taiwan can act independently, it would perhaps be less tempting to suspect that the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office’s announcement on the morning of Feb. 10 that 118 individuals, including student leader Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), will be prosecuted for various “crimes” committed during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan (“318”), of the Executive Yuan (“323”) and a small protest outside a police station (“411”) last year was politically motivated.
Sadly, our faith in the court system is justifiably shaky, and this encourages speculation that the indictments, and the timing of the announcement, may provide needed distraction for the embattled Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which faces numerous crises at the moment, including the recent arrest of Tainan City Council Speaker Lee Chuan-chiao (李全教) for bribery in the Dec. 25, 2014, council elections, the possibility that the reprehensible Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) will be unseated by the Appendectomy Project on Feb. 14, and corruption investigations that could very well implicate former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), who has presidential ambitions, and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
The indictments target activists who orchestrated the occupation of the legislature following the 30-second passing of a controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by KMT Legislator Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠) on March 17, 2014. The occupation by the constellation of civic organizations, which came to be known as the Sunflower Movement, began on the evening of March 18 (“318”) and ended on April 10. In all, about 200 activists occupied the chambers of the legislature. Tens of thousands of people surrounded the building during that period, culminating in a nearly half-a-million-people rally on March 30. Before leaving the parliament, the activists thoroughly cleaned up the chambers and covered all expenses related to the minor damage caused during the occupation.
The “323” incident occurred during the night of March 23-24 when thousands of protesters affiliated with the Sunflower Movement stormed the Executive Yuan nearby and briefly occupied it before riot police was sent in, resulting in several injuries. As all journalists (including this writer) were expelled before the operation was launched, police abuse was never investigated satisfactorily, despite the fact that a number of activists were grievously injured.
Lastly, “411” was a small protest during which about 2,000 people gathered outside the Zhongzheng First Police Precinct office, a ten-minute walk from the legislature. The demonstrators were angered by the forceful removal of members of the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan outside the legislature at 7 am on April 11. Earlier, then-Zhongzheng First Police Precinct chief Fang Yang-ning (方仰寧), a much-hated symbol among protesters, had promised the group that the members would not be forced out.
Following the conclusion of three major investigations, prosecutors announced on Feb. 10 that 21 people, including Lin (who is currently doing his military service) and Academia Sinica researcher Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), will be prosecuted for their role in “318.” Despite conflicting reports, it has now been confirmed that student leader Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) was also indicted (full list here). Student leader “Dennis” Wei Yang (魏揚) and 92 others will be charged over “323,” while Hung Chung-yen (洪崇彥) and three others will face prosecution over “411.” In most cases, the charges involve “obstruction of official business.” Huang, who incidentally has spearheaded the Appendectomy Project targeting KMT Legislator Alex Tsai and others, will also be prosecuted for “incitement to commit a crime.” Prosecutors said they had yet to determine the nature of the punishments. They added that imprisonment was among the options that were being considered. And of course, gangsters like Chang An-le (張安樂) and his followers, the only people (besides the police) who actually used real violence during the crisis last spring, are being left completely alone by the prosecutors.
As suggested above, while the prosecution could provide needed distraction for the KMT, two other factors are possibly at play.
The first is the vindictive nature of the Ma administration, which has had no compunction in using the courts to punish whoever defies its authority. It is therefore no surprise that last week, when the public was mourning the Feb. 4 TransAsia Airways plane crash and offering support to the victims’ families, Ma could not help but add that “those responsible” for the tragedy “would be punished.” Rather than bring solace, Ma, who true to himself was nowhere to be found during the initial days of the rescue efforts, was already pointing fingers and looking for culprits.
Despite maintaining that the Sunflower occupation was an ephemeral phenomenon with no long-lasting impact, Ma must be aware that the movement seriously harmed his reputation and threw a monkey wrench in his cross-strait plans, which up until then had enjoyed relatively smooth sailing. In reality, the Sunflower Movement not only caused serious delays in the passage of the CSSTA and other pacts with China (they have yet to be implemented), it also generated awareness with a public that had hitherto allowed his administration to get away with agreements that may not have been entirely in the best interests of Taiwan. By doing so, the activists threatened Ma’s very legacy, which is almost entirely based on his ability to strike deals with Beijing.
The Sunflowers must therefore be punished for their effrontery, even at the risk of sparking a new round of protests and further alienating the public.
The second factor is directly related to the first, as President Ma may still hope to see the CSSTA and subsequent agreements implemented before he steps down in early 2016. Ridding himself of the youth who spearheaded the Sunflower Movement, especially the more charismatic leaders among them, could help clear a path to expedite matters, though I suspect that other activists who were cultivated in the wake of the 318 occupation would step in to keep the administration in check. If this happens, new, more permissive and pre-emptive law enforcement powers could make for a most eventful year and a new round of political instability in Taiwan.
Beijing-based Taiwanese songwriter and singer Hou Te-chien (侯德健), who took part in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, can argue all he wants that Taiwan is a “political parvenu” where protests are “like toys for the Taiwanese” who, like children, are “always excited about them.” In reality, when democratic institutions fail — as they most certainly did during President Ma’s second term, where the cancer of cross-strait cronyism metastasized and threatened the nation as a whole — activism isn’t mere toy, but rather the last line of defense.
I do not believe that prosecution will deter future activists. In fact, it will likely embolden them. As the Sunflowers promised upon exiting the legislature on April 10, they will be back. Let 118 Sunflowers bloom.
Statement by Amnesty International here.
Statement by the Judicial Reform Foundation here.
(First Updated on 2015.02.10 6:03 pm. )
(Second Update on 2015.02.10 10:29 pm.)
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.