The standoff over a controversial trade agreement between Taiwan and China that began on March 19 with the occupation of the legislature took a turn for the worse on March 23 after riot police turned on protesters who had occupied the nearby Executive Yuan, injuring several dozens.
Sunday night’s dramatic events occurred a day after an unsuccessful meeting between Premier Jiang Yi-huah and Lin Fei-fan, one of the leaders of the “sunflower revolution,” and following an international press conference by President Ma Ying-jeou, who refused to meet the group’s demands. Since March 19, tens of thousands of Taiwanese have protested outside the legislature, while about 300 — mostly students — remain shacked up inside the building.
The alliance against the services trade pact, an amalgam of student organizations, lawyers, and civic organizations, had initially demanded that the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), signed in China in June 2013, be reviewed clause-by-clause by the legislature, that a mechanism be set to monitor future agreements with China, and that President Ma apologize for the crisis. It later changed its demands by requesting that the pact be annulled altogether and calling for a national conference on the matter.
Many Taiwanese, including leading economists and politicians, fear that the problematic pact, which was negotiated behind closed doors, will damage vulnerable sectors of Taiwan’s economy. Others fear it plays into Beijing’s unification goals. Although 70 percent of the public favors a line-by-line review of the agreement, President Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) broke a promise on March 19 (following deadlock in the legislature) to hold such a review and sent it directly to a plenary session for a vote, sparking the crisis (the KMT has a legislative majority and the Central Committee has threatened any dissenter with suspension).
With no sign of a resolution in sight, a group of protesters slipped past security at the Executive Yuan, the seat of the Cabinet, at 7:35 p.m. on March 23. Immediately the group inside the legislature distanced itself from the action in a press release, though from the leadership on the ground it was obvious that they belonged to the alliance. By 8:30 p.m., a few thousand people were occupying the compound. Following a brief standoff with police, protesters broke into the building through the main door or by climbing ladders to upper windows. Aside from damage to the main doors and two broken windows, there were no other signs of damage to the building. Several thousand people also gathered on Zhongxiao Road in front of the building.
Although police authorities had not acted on orders to evict the activists from the legislature — relations have in fact been rather cordial, with protesters often applauding and thanking law enforcement — Sunday’s occupation of the Executive Yuan was a major escalation, and soon there was chatter that police would intervene. The Cabinet gave the order at 10:30 p.m. and told police to do everything necessary to evict the occupiers by 11 p.m. In response, the Democratic Front Against Cross Strait Trade In Services, one of the groups orchestrating the occupation at the legislature, issued a press release, in which it called on the authorities, “to not use violence to suppress the protesters.” It also called on the government “to not release emergency orders and to not mobilize the armed forces.”
As hundreds of police with shields and batons formed a line in front of the Executive Yuan, an even larger contingent of riot police, flanked by truck-mounted water cannons, faced off with protesters behind the building on Beiping Road. At about midnight, the order was given to rid the area of protesters. About 200 riot police, armed with shields and batons, descended on the protesters as the latter were about to sit down and shouted “please don’t use force against us.” At one side, a young woman, crying, called out to her boyfriend who was among the protesters. Several black-clad riot police swung their batons at young protesters, while police used their PVC shields to hit sitting protesters on the legs. Several dozens of protesters were eventually taken out — oftentimes shoved violently and dragged around — while police pushed out of the area. Protesters complained that the riot police had masked their badge numbers. Journalists who identified themselves as such and showed identification were also ordered to leave.
According to unconfirmed reports, as many as 50 protesters had sustained injuries in clashes with police since the beginning of the occupation.
Meanwhile, at the main site of the Executive Yuan, political leaders from the opposition, including Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang and Tsai Ing-wen, the party’s presidential candidate in 2012 and a former chairperson, joined the group in a bid to prevent a police crackdown. This did not prevent police from moving in. At 2 a.m., police ordered media to leave the Executive Yuan, whereupon riot squads stormed the building and evicted the several dozen protesters who were still inside. Based on accounts by activists and the state of those who were taken out of the building, riot police used excessive force to expel them. Several protesters had head injuries and cuts. One woman, wearing a blazon from the small opposition party Taiwan Solidarity Union, lay unconscious on the ground.
By then, about 600 riot police and several hundred more law-enforcement officers were deployed at the Executive Yuan, while a few thousands protesters remained. Clashes were still occurring at 4:30 a.m., with police using water cannons and tear gas against protesters, who by then were shouting slogans calling on Ma and Jiang to step down.
Although the decision to occupy the Executive Yuan — which did not seem to be supported by everybody inside the legislature — may have undermined the alliance’s image with the public, images of police brutality against predominantly school-age protesters were likely to mitigate the initial drawback and exacerbate public resentment with the administration. Conversely, some critics observed that the alliance’s decision to change its demand from a full review of the pact in the legislature to its annulment may have closed the door on possible negotiations and forced a weakened Ma administration into a corner.