COMMENTARY: The Sunf lower Movement: Taiwan students demonstrate for democracy, transparency

By Han-Jung Ko

About 700 people demonstrated in support of the Sunflower Movement with sunflowers and posters in Paris, France. (Photo courtesy of Hsinhui Kuo)

On April 10, the longest Parliament occupation protest in Taiwan’s history, the Sunflower Movement, came to a symbolic end. The protesters, mostly college students, occupied the Parliament since March 19. They have decided to shift their efforts to promoting a monitoring framework that will ensure an honest review of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with the Chinese government, and ensure transparency in future cross-Strait trade negotiations for Taiwanese people. This young generation has proved to be a generation of hope for Taiwan’s democracy.

On March 18, 400 students occupied the Parliament of Taiwan, and over 10,000 people joined the protest peacefully within a few days. This protest has been referred to as the Sunflower Movement, in which the sunflower has become a symbol of the pursuit of true democracy in Taiwan and transparency in its political arena. Sunflower Movement protesters are opposed to the CSSTA for the government’s under-the-table negotiations with the Chinese government since 2013. Over the past six years, President Ma Ying-jeou has strengthened Taiwan’s economic ties with China. With the stagnation in the Taiwanese economy and the outflow of younger generation workers to China, Taiwanese people are increasingly worried that too much economic dependency on China would eventually lead to China’s takeover of Taiwan, which is what the Chinese government has intended to do since 1949, after the conclusion of the Chinese civil war. This CSSTA may risk Taiwan’s national security by opening the Taiwanese printing, finance, telecom, and various commodity industries to the Chinese. Public hearings were held within three days in early March, but the Ma administration did not sufficiently address the doubts and disagreements from the grass-root and civic groups. No effective contingency plans were clearly proposed for its potential impacts on the working class, small businesses, and overall Taiwanese society. The last straw was on March 18, when the Agreement was rushed to pass within 30 seconds by a legislator during the review meeting, without any deliberative review and the required due process as President Ma promised to the people. The protesters have insisted on four appeals to the government: to withdraw the current CSSTA; to establish a formal monitoring mechanism for all future agreements with the Chinese government; to revisit the CSSTA until the proper monitoring mechanism is established; and to form a citizen constitutional congress for full-participation of the general public. This will maximize legislative transparency and responsiveness to public concerns. Both the occupation of the Parliament and the sit-in outside of the building have demonstrated the people’s desire for democracy and their determination to remain a free society.

Even though some have characterized the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Parliament as illegal, many believed it has revealed the illegal legislative process regarding the CSSTA, as well as highlighted the public frustration with President Ma’s inept administration. Ma and his administration have lost people’s trust drastically — dropping to 9 percent in a national poll in late 2013. It has also exposed the totalitarian problem in the administration as Ma has completely controlled the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of the government, without appropriate balance of power as the Constitution clearly stipulates. When the protesters attempted to expand their activity to the Executive Yuan, instead of trying to calm the situation, Ma and his administration, on midnight of March 23, sent 1,500 policemen to forcibly expel the protesters. The riot police used water cannons, and some used batons and shields to beat unarmed protesters and journalists. On April 1, China’s gangster proxy group went to the Parliament to intimidate the protesters without being arrested by the police. Unfortunately, President Ma has not communicated openly with the protesters during the whole process. Moreover, his administration is allegedly threatening to arrest the student protesters after the occupation. If the government follows through with its threat, it will remind people of the unlawful political suppression during the martial law era (1949-1987).

Civil disobedience is always controversial in democratic nations, but the Sunflower Movement is undeniably effective on personal and societal levels. The Sunflower Movement has debunked the Taiwanese older generation’s concerns for the younger. It demonstrates that younger Taiwanese actually do care about cross-Strait politics and the future of their country. It demonstrates that younger Taiwanese have sufficient abilities to enact their civic responsibility by peacefully and insistently protesting for three weeks. It demonstrates that younger Taiwanese have galvanized Taiwanese society and unified generations to strategically safeguard its hard-earned democracy. It is not merely a student social movement. Instead, it has evolved to be a movement of all the people.

The Sunflower Movement has inspired Taiwanese and those who support democracy around the world. On March 30, across 45 cities in 17 nations, people gathered in support of the Sunflower Movement’s demonstration in front of the Presidential Office Building, where over 350,000 people gathered to demand a formal response to the protesters’ requests from President Ma. In Taiwan and around the world, there are many ongoing discussions to understand the CSSTA, the political fallout it brought, Taiwan’s future of self-determination, and the need for constitutional reform. The movement has gained much support from social-movement veterans overseas, including Wang Dan, who was the leader of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in Beijing and involved in recent social movements in China. He credited the Sunflower Movement, saying, “It has transformed the younger Taiwanese, the whole generation. They would never ever feel indifferent to the reality and politics. They have shown their civic quality and care about politics.”

Today, the protesters left the Parliament with three missions: monitoring the legislative process towards a formal and transparent mechanism for future cross-Strait agreements, reviewing the CSSTA item by item, and promoting the civic constitutional convention. The overall message is to demand that Ma and his administration re-evaluate their pro-China policy. This is just the beginning of the democratic transformation in Taiwan. The protesters and many grass-roots civic groups are committed to fight for Taiwan’s democracy, with the Taiwanese people behind them. (end)

Han-Jung Ko, M.S., is a doctoral student at the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Oregon State University. She currently resides in Seattle, where she enlisted the help of Taiwanese graduate students at the University of Washington in the editing of this op-ed.


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