Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2009-05-17 03:41 PM
Four marches organized by the Democratic Progressive Party took off across the capital in the afternoon and converged on Ketagalan Boulevard, the wide plaza in front of the Presidential Office building.
At the planned end of the protest, at 10 p.m. Sunday, the participants were preparing to start a 24-hour sit-in to mark their opposition against proposed restrictive government amendments to the Parade and Assemblies Act. The DPP has refused to register the sit-in with the authorities, but the Taipei City Government said it would allow it to go ahead until 10 p.m. Monday unless it interfered with traffic.
Each march Sunday had a theme highlighting different aspects of the protesters’ opposition against Ma’s policies.
Outside the ministry, Tsai presided over the release of black balloons into the air, symbolizing the threat posed by the import of shoddily made Chinese products.
Ma’s plans for an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China came under fire. Opponents want a nationwide referendum on ECFA, fearing it will damage Taiwan’s sovereignty, threaten the traditional sectors of the country’s economy, and trigger a surge in unemployment.
Vice President Annette Lu led protesters on a route from the busy eastern shopping districts of Taipei under the slogan “Protect Sovereignty.”
Former Premier and presidential candidate Frank Hsieh led a march against unemployment, which under Ma has reached record levels approaching 6 percent. Hsieh’s march left from the Chungshan Soccer Stadium and passed by the Council of Labor Affairs, where the protesters threw paper planes and shouted slogans against the eventual opening of Taiwan to students and diplomas from China.
Former Premier Su Tseng-chang led the “team to protect the weak” with slogans against the One China market, setting off from the relatively poor district of Wanhua in the southwest of the capital. Chairman Huang Kun-huei of the smaller pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union also participated in the march. The black balloons the marchers released in front of the Council of Agriculture symbolized the feared flood of Chinese fruit and other agricultural products expected to flood the Taiwanese market after ECFA.
Other skits featured people throwing shoes at effigies of Ma and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan, or beating representations of horse heads, a pun on Ma’s surname.
The DPP said 600,000 people participated in the marches, but police said the total did not exceed 80,000. Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin said preliminary estimates put the crowds at about 10,000 per march, for a total of 50,000 at the most.
“The mayor is afraid of facing public opinion,” DPP spokesman Cheng Wen-tsang said.
Because of problems finding enough buses to rent, more than 800 protesters from Taiwan’s southernmost county of Pingtung booked a train to Taipei instead.
Four similar marches crossed Kaohsiung, where a crowd estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000 converged near the Formosa Boulevard Mass Rapid Transit Station. Former Premier Yu Shyi-kun was one of the few national DPP leaders attending the Kaohsiung rally. Yu and the city’s mayor, Chen Chu, traveled up to Taipei later to join the DPP sit-in.
Protesters in both cities accused Ma of selling out Taiwan’s interest and of failing to cure the country’s economic ills. Over the past year since Ma took office on May 20, Taiwan’s exports collapsed and unemployment soared while the government opened up the economy to China while playing down competition in the international arena.
“The past year was the year that Taiwan’s sovereignty has been disappearing, the economy has been regressing, and Taiwan’s democracy has been going backward,” Tsai told the crowds on Ketagalan Boulevard.
The people will never accept Ma’s description of China as Taiwan’s way out of the economic crisis, Tsai said.
During the evening, one participant in the DPP anti-government rally was reported in critical condition after being hit by a police car.
Two elderly men from Pateh, Taoyuan County, were crossing Hangchou South Road behind Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall when a police car suddenly appeared and hit them at great speed, reports said.
Ambulances took both to nearby National Taiwan University Hospital while investigators inspected the scene and more protesters gathered. One of the men, surnamed Chang, 59, was reported gravely injured and ready for surgery. The other man, surnamed Hsu, 67, sustained slight injuries.
Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin visited the injured and said he would treat the case very seriously. Police denied the officer had hit the protesters on purpose.
The DPP did not announce news of the accident at its main event just streets away.
Eyewitnesses said the car might have been driving 80 or 100 kilometers per hour and demanded the police driver undergo an alcohol test. The two protesters were crossing the street to buy food from a convenience store before the bus trip home, witnesses said.
A small incident occurred on Ketagalan Boulevard before the start of the event, when a man wearing black clothes and a home-made mask with the words “Down with Chen Shui-bian, Fight the DPP” was involved in scuffles with protesters. He was taken away by DPP security staff and questioned by police. Media reports said later the man was an unemployed Overseas Chinese from Myanmar and was carrying stones and a stick.
The slogan on the man’s mask was referring to the former president, who was holding a hunger strike in jail in support of Sunday’s mass protests. Chen has been in custody since December 30 as a suspect in several corruption and money laundering cases.
Supporters of the former president mounted their own separate march Sunday, walking from Panciao in Taipei County to Ketagalan Boulevard.
There were initial concerns about violence because the sit-in was not officially approved, and after clashes between police and protesters during the visit of top Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin last November.
Police mobilized 2,000 officers in Taipei, with 1,800 ready to join in if needed, national police chief Wang Cho-chiun said.
DPP Secretary-General Wu Nai-jen told reporters he was not expecting any problems, since the party had mobilized about 200 of its own staff to keep order. Protesters criticized the presence of heavy barriers equipped with sharp razor-like blades close to the Presidential Office. Police said they would not use the barriers unless in a major emergency
Another potential flashpoint was the headquarters of the ruling Kuomintang, where Lu’s march passed by. Protesters presented a plastic horse, a reference to the president’s surname, colored red with the Chinese flag.
National Security Bureau chief Tsai Te-sheng said Taiwan was a pluralist democracy where respect for freedom of opinion was paramount. Nevertheless, respect didn’t mean police would tolerate everything, and a soft approach to protesters didn’t mean no approach, Tsai told reporters.
On Monday, traffic was expected to become one of the main concerns as people returned to work. The area around the Presidential Office would still be closed off for traffic, including public buses, the authorities said.
School entrance examinations in the neighborhood of the protests Sunday were planning to distribute ear plugs to the students, reports said.
President Ma himself was not in Taipei during the protest rally Sunday afternoon, but left for an official visit to the Hsinchu Science Park and for symposiums with students in Hsinchu.
Ma told reporters he could understand people taking to the streets to protest, and hoped the marches would end peacefully. He said his government would listen to the voice of the public and try to improve the economy. Ma insisted all talks with China had taken place on an equal level without giving in one inch on Taiwan’s sovereignty.