The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) couldn’t have done it better itself. More than anything in recent times, the controversy surrounding the July 4 death of a Taiwanese Army corporal is devastating morale and public confidence in the Taiwanese military, and risks striking a fatal blow to Taiwan’s efforts to create an all-volunteer force by 2015.
The death of 24-year-old Hung Chung-chiu from hyperthermia-induced disseminated intra-vascular coagulation, or DIC, three days before he was due to complete his obligatory service has sparked a major political storm in Taiwan, completely dominating the airwaves and leading to a large protest in front of the Ministry of National Defense headquarters on July 20 (see above). Nine days later, with public protests continuing, Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu tendered his resignation.
Hung died in hospital after being subjected to days of arduous exercises in extreme heat and without being given any water while in detention for the ostensible crime of bringing a cell phone equipped with a camera on the base. As more details about the case emerged, it became likely that the conscript was punished by his superiors — in a manner that broke military regulations — for uncovering corruption within his unit.
Following the public outcry, video evidence disappearing, and several families coming forth whose sons also died under mysterious circumstances over the years, military prosecutors launched a full-fledged investigation into the death, which wrapped up on July 31 with the announcement that 18 senior officers and NCOs had been indicted.
Hung’s family and the Taiwanese public have reacted with anger to the announcement, saying that the indictments targeted personnel who had served at the detention center where Hung was held, rather than the more senior officers who authorized his punishment. Additionally, new evidence is pointing to further cover-ups and bribery during the probe, prompting the family to say on August 1 that they had lost all hope in the military prosecutors’ ability or willingness to do their jobs, a sentiment that seems to be shared by a large segment of the public. Another large rally will be held on Aug. 3 in front of the Presidential Office.
The repercussions of this scandal could be far reaching. As more people come forward with horror stories of their own, young Taiwanese men have become even more reluctant to do their obligatory service, which under current plans is to be phased out by early 2015. Fewer still consider volunteering for a career in the armed forces.
Even before Hung’s death, the military was failing to meet the benchmarks it had set for itself, including a total active duty force of 215,000, of which 176,000 are to be volunteers. It attracted half of the 4,000 volunteers it was aiming for in 2011, and only 11,000 in 2012, missing its target by 4,000. The figures for the first half of 2013 are even more dismal, with 1,847 signing up through July 3. The ministry’s recruitment goal for the year is 17,447.
Even before the scandal, the ministry didn’t seem to have a clear plan as to what it will do if it cannot attract enough volunteers by the time conscription is lifted. Hung’s death will undoubtedly exacerbate the problem, so much so that one is left wondering whether the active force will be large enough in 2015 to continue defending the nation against the PLA threat.
Barring a sudden change in recruitment trends, it is hard to imagine how the military will be able to sustain required force levels without reintroducing conscription, which will be very difficult politically. One possibility is that reintroducing conscription could become a major issue in the 2016 presidential election. As President Ma Ying-jeou had made ending obligatory service one of his campaign promises, it is unlikely that his successor (Ma cannot run for a third term) within his Kuomintang (KMT) will seek to overturn that. This leaves the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which will be compelled to argue in favor of its resumption, an unpopular policy that is certain to alienate many voters.
Andrew Yang, who has replaced Kao as defense minister, vowed on Aug. 1 that cases such as Hung’s death would never again take place. Despite his solid reputation and best intentions, Yang faces a Herculean task as he tries to undo the damage caused by the scandal and rebuilds the military’s reputation.