2014: The strength of civil society – The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan

– E-Ling Chiu, Secretary General, Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR) –

The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in 2014 was a protest driven by a coalition of students, academics and civic groups against the Government. It led to an increase in political awareness and political participation, mainly of a new, young generation of Taiwanese. More so, it resulted in the formation of more movements, political parties and stronger engagement with existing civil society.

Background

The Sunflower Movement was, contrary to what some might believe, not only about China. It was the result of an accumulation of grievances of the people with the national Government. Before March 2014, many human rights violations in Taiwan were not recognised or addressed by the Government.

a) The Factory Workers

The case of the factory workers in 1996, for example. They did not receive their salaries for months nor their severance pay, because their boss closed the factory without informing them, after which he escaped to another country.
After a long time of protesting, the Government had to pay the salaries to 281 the workers on behalf of the boss.

b) The Media

Another example happened in 2012. A pro-China media company, which was one of the biggest newspaper companies in Taiwan, wanted to merge with a big cable broadband company. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists, scholars and students groups condemned the proposal, fearing it would give them a monopoly over the media, and would affect the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech of reporters. It encouraged many young people to organise in students groups in many different universities, which resulted in many protests.

c) Evictions

Meanwhile, more and more forced evictions happened in Taiwan. One of the most famous cases was that of the Wang family in Taipei city. The Government demolished the family’s legal and cosy house for the building of a company. Many students and young people, who wanted to protect the Wang family’s home, gathered in front of the house. They were all arrested by the police. Another famous case is that of Dapu in Miaoli County. The police destroyed the rice-field, which were just ready for harvest. Because of the image of destroyed rice-fields, many people gathered in front of the building of the Office of the President to protest against the many forced evictions and land-grabbing in Taiwan. An elderly grandmother even committed suicide because of the land-grabbing.
After a meeting with the Ministry of Interior, the Vice-President promised that four families could remain in the Urban Project area. However, one of the four families, the Chang family, saw their drugstore demolished by the local Government in July 2013. After that, the father of the Chang family committed suicide. In August 2013, students and young people occupied the Ministry of Interior, pasted stickers with protest slogans on it, made graffiti and stayed
until the second day. All these cases show the anger of the Taiwanese people and how it continued to increase, till it got to a boiling point.

Breaking point

The increase in trade between Taiwan and China, led to the Taiwanese Government signing more and more free trade agreements with the Chinese Government. However, human rights perspectives were totally neglected in the drafting of these agreements. For example, the potential raise in unemployment after opening the labour market was not considered at all, nor was it discussed whether there might be an effect on the Taiwanese people’s freedom of speech and privacy rights if the telecommunication industry would exchange information with their counterpart in China. Also the personal liberty, freedom of movement and the right to a fair trial of Taiwanese people in China were not protected.

After the Taiwanese Government signed the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA)[1], NGOs organised an alliance to monitor the process. In the past, NGOs in Taiwan did not pay too much attention to economic and trade agreements. So in the beginning, it was very difficult for NGOs to analyse the agreements, and it was also difficult to explain the issues to the public.

Later Taiwan and China started to negotiate another free trade agreement related to the service industry. More and more people started to get involved in the civil society organisation (CSO) alliance, and it resulted in a new alliance called the Anti-Black Box Movement.[2]

Scholars and volunteers provided a lot of assistance in the form of analysis and info-graphics to help the NGOs to spread awareness about the issue to people. Also, because of the lack of transparency during the drafting process of the agreements, NGOs urged Parliament to review the texts of these free trade agreements carefully and hold public hearings.

However, since the majority of the Parliament was held by the ruling party, the Kuomintang of China (KMT), the KMT Members of Parliament (MPs) always supported the ruling party’s policy. On 17 March 2014 one of the KMT MP, Mr. Chang Ching-Chung, who was the Chairman of the Review Meeting on that day, after intermission, passed the controversial agreement within 30 seconds and then closed the meeting. After that, NGOs started to sit in front of the Parliament to protest the undemocratic process, and held an assembly that same night.

The Sunflower Movement

Around 9 o’clock on the same day, 17 March 2014, during the night event, some students and activists crossed the handrail of the Parliament, and opened the doors. Then many people, who participated in the night event, started to go into the Parliament building and sat in front of the main meeting room where the agreement had been passed.

Then someone broke the window of the meeting room. Everyone went in and occupied the room. Journalists also came immediately to report the news. In the beginning, the police still tried to open the door. Since there were too many people, including journalists and some Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) MPs, it was difficult to disperse all.

After the first night passed safely, more and more people gathered outside the Parliament building, including university students from the Central and Southern parts of Taiwan. Many people showed their support by providing things.
Farmers sent rice, food, fruits, noodles, vegetables, and sunflowers. Lawyers organised and provided legal aid for the protesters. University Professors came, changed their class rooms for the Parliament and asked students to discuss what was going on.

Challenges and solutions

More and more people arrived, but the meeting room was not big enough to contain all the people. NGOs started to organise speeches and discussion groups outside the Parliament. Since the Parliament building crossed two streets, the protest separated over three locations. One was on Ji-Nan Road, the other was on Ching-Dao Road, and the third one was in the main meeting room of the Parliament.

Because of the space separation, the connection and communication between the three parts was difficult. Some volunteers, who were specialists in computer engineering, came to help, and a broadband internet company came to provide assistance. They set up webcasts for the three different places. Additionally, that way, the people who could not attend the protests every day, could be updated on the situation through the Internet.

There were many people who had never participated in any social movement before. The Sunflower Movement was their first experience. Many of them had a lot of questions, emotions and thoughts they wanted to share with others. So we started to reduce the one-direction speeches, and encouraged people to register for speaking or even singing on the stage. People also organised to discuss other, related issues, such as trade agreements with China, what democracy was, what kind of parliament we wanted, what kind of economic development we wanted, what kind of future we wanted, and much more. NGOs also provided ‘non-violent protest training’ to the public.

Movie directors, documentary makers, film companies, alternative singers and music bands contacted us to provide related films or documentaries to screen to the public at night. Many people voluntary organised to maintain the social order at night. Chefs organised to cook for the people who stayed up all night. Doctors and nurses scheduled voluntary shifts to prevent people from getting sick during the protest. During these days, the protest functioned as a small country.

Escalation

NGOs and student groups organised a daily meeting called ‘core decision making meeting’ which was composed of ten NGOs and ten student representatives. The meeting decided the protesters had four demands: 1) withdraw the passed trade agreement; 2) the Parliament should pass a ‘monitoring regulation for all the agreements between China and Taiwan’ and make sure that all these agreements will be reviewed by Parliament; 3) President Ma and the head of Executive Yuan should apologise to the public; and 4) the Constitution should add more human rights articles that respond to and in line with the situation in Taiwan.

Again there was no response from the Government. More and more people wanted to escalate the conflict. On the evening of 24 March, some people organised an action. They placed quilts over the barricades of the Executive Yuan, and crossed the gate. People started to sit in the square of the Executive Yuan. Some even broke the window of the building and sat inside. Many people, who sat around the Parliament, started to move to the Executive Yuan. More and more people gathered in the Executive Yuan and asked the Government to respond. At midnight, more and more police came. The police started to disperse the journalists and people. Some police started to use batons to beat people, since the order from the top level was to clear out the masses before dawn. Many people got severely injured, including doctors who were providing medical services inside.

After 24 March, people felt more angry and disappointed in the Government. Some people even said they wanted to occupy the Office of the President. At the same time, people started to feel tired and were in shock after the events of 24 March.

The NGOs had another meeting. They tried to organise another event on 30 March to show the will of the people to the Government. On 30 March, more than 500,000 people gathered around the President Office’s building peacefully to show the Government they were angry.

On 6 April, the head of Parliament released a statement that promise Parliament would not process any more agreements between China and Taiwan until the ‘monitoring regulation’ would be passed.

On 7 April, the core-decision-making meeting decided to stop the occupation. However, many people could not accept this, since not all the requests had been achieved. On 8 April, NGOs suggested to hold a public dialogue forum on Ji-Nan Road to discuss the future and further possible actions. On 9 April, students started to clean the meeting room of the Parliament and the streets around it. Finally, on 10 April, NGOs and students held a closing event on Ji-Nan Road in evening and all people left before mid-night.

Result

In the past, because of the effect of the White Terror period,[3] people were afraid to talk about politics or public issues. People who protested on the street were seen as mobs that were disturbing the social order. The exception were student movements who were seen as pure and virtuous and got lots of support from society. In the past, there were not so many people who cared about social policy or public issues. Most people thought they could not do anything to change the existing policy or the inequality anyway.

However, after the Sunflower Movement, more and more people wanted to participate in NGO or social movement activities, and wanted to become volunteers. It is very important, especially for young people, to be aware that participating in public affairs is our right.

Along with political awareness, many people formed new political parties to join next year’s Parliamentary election campaign.[4] They seek a new form of politics. It is inspired by the idea that the old politics were controlled by the wealthy and the influential, who only cared about their own personal interests. They were not concerned with human rights.

Some of the new NGOs organised a campaign for the revision of the Referendum Act, and requested the threshold to be lowered. This New NGO Alliance demanded constitutional reform. In the past, constitutional reform had only been discussed and decided on by the two main political parties, not by the people. The New NGO Alliance called for constitutional reform from the bottom-up to create a platform where a lot of people could discuss the issues.

Another major result was that Parliament started to review and discuss the Monitoring Regulation on Agreements between China and Taiwan. Some people started to look at and analyse the free trade dynamics in the broader context of the world, rather than only focus on the issues with China.

Thanks to the Sunflower Movement more people started to get involved with NGOs and social movements. While at the same time, the analysis and discourse within NGOs related to economics and politics became deeper and more profound.

The Sunflower Movement created a situation in which NGOs from different backgrounds worked intensely together 24/7. While it strengthened the understanding and trust between some NGOs and individuals, it also created discontent and conflicts between others.

Lessons learnt

• Many people need to be allowed to be part of decision making

The core-decision-making meeting was criticised by some for only allowing a few people to decide about the movement. To involve more people in the meeting is important. Some students were critical, because they could not analyse things the way NGOs and Professors did, which caused them to always feel their opinions were not emphasised in the meeting.
However, it also poses a dilemma. If everything is discussed openly on the street with anyone being able to have a say, even unknown people, it becomes challenging to deal with unreasonable suggestions without hurting people’s
feelings.

• Different people, different motivations

The other issue was that people joined the movement for very different reasons. Some people were there because of their concerns over China, others joined because they felt disappointed by Parliament for neglecting ‘due process’ and transparency. Some joined just because they wanted to support the students, and others joined because of their overall concerns with free trade and the economic development.

This made it difficult to discuss priorities and strategies with so many diverse people; how to make sure the movement would not become a ‘hate China’ populism event? Or how to prevent it from becoming violent? All of this requires training to gain skills on how to deal with so many people with so many different opinions.

• Deciding when to stop

Deciding when to finish the occupation was a very difficult decision. Maybe we should have discussed it with more people on the street? Since there were many people on the street every day, rain or shine, it was understandable that they were not happy about only being informed, rather than being given the chance to participate in the discussion and decision. Many people felt hurt or betrayed after the decision was taken to end the occupation. It will take time to mend the cracks between the people.

• What to do when the Government keeps silent?

Finally, after all the efforts, the many days and the masses of people, there was still no response from the Government. If the Government keeps silent, if there is no response to the protest, what other ways are there to put further pressure on the Government to give a response? Unfortunately, it is still a question for us today.

Long-term change

Since the Sunflower Movement only happened in 2014, at the time of writing 130 it has just been one year, making it difficult to see what the long-term consequences will be of the efforts. Still some changes have already happened in the last year.

More and more people have been willing to participate and attend different protests. Some even became volunteers in NGOs.

However, the Assembly and Parade Law still have not been revised. The police even tried to use criminal law to sue people who participate in protests. Many new NGOs and new political parties have been created. It shows that more people, especially young people, want to discuss and participate in politics.

During the session where Parliament discussed constitutional reform, young people tried to push for the right to vote to be lowered from 20 to 18 years old. Unfortunately this demand was unsuccessful, because it was boycotted by the majority party, KMT.

During the elections for Mayors in September 2014, the ruling party lost in most of the cities, winning only in six out of 22 cities. It shows that people started to show their anger through their vote. It has encouraged more people to have confidence to form new political parties to run in the elections for Parliament which are to be held in January 2016. Even though the current parliamentary electoral system is more favourable to the big political parties.

Conclusion

The circumstances and tide of events of the Sunflower Movement led to an increase in political awareness and engagement with national politics, mainly of a new, young generation. Political participation, however, is still hindered by the Government, particularly when it comes to protests and demonstrations. Still, the Sunflower Movement highlighted the strength of civil society. It showed the possibilities to generate change and influence the political landscape of your own country. As long as civil society grows stronger, more active and more energetic every day, people will voice their demands more often. And one day the national institutions will change.

***
E-Ling Chiu, Secretary General, Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR)

E-Ling Chiu was involved as a coordinator of the non-governmental organisations on Ji-Nan Road during the Sunflower Movement, as well as a co-organiser of the 30 March event.

She is currently the Secretary General of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), a FORUM-ASIA member organisation, Executive Board Member of the Covenants Watch, Taiwan, and Executive Board Member of the Taiwan Alliance to End Death Penalty. Previously she was Executive Board Member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)

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