The peacefulness of the Taiwanese “Sunflower Revolution” was shattered late on Sunday night as riot police were dispatched to clear out students who were attempting to occupy a second government building.
Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, was first occupied on March 18 by protesters opposed to the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party’s arrangement of a trade deal with China. The protesters fear that the pact will be detrimental to Taiwan’s struggle for international recognition of its sovereignty, and they demand that it be declared null and void.
Demonstrators broke into the Executive Yuan, which houses the office of Premier Jiang Yi-huah, earlier Sunday evening. The protesters who remained in the parliament building were quick to distance themselves from this move, which they regarded as a step too far. Premier Jiang also wasn't amused, and ordered the riot police to get the demonstrators out of the Executive Yuan.
Riot police break up a protest in Taipei. Photo by Dan Ulrich
As students sat with linked arms, police surged down the streets and the warm relations between the two sides quickly vanished.
“As I lay on the ground, 6 cops stood over me,” a young protester named Chuang Yung Hsiang told VICE News. “I couldn’t see anything because they formed a circle to hide their violence. They started to swear at me and kick me badly, as if I was a sandbag.”
Demonstrators had hoped that media coverage would deter excessive force from the authorities, but police evacuated reporters from the Executive Yuan while cornering a pocket of protesters who remained inside.
“The students could be heard shouting for the media to be let back in as they felt the cameras would protect them from any police brutality,” a protester named Wen-li told VICE News. “We didn’t fight. We just sat down. We thought the police wouldn’t do anything to us.” A water cannon was later used to disperse the sitting protesters.
Dan Ulrich, a photographer at the scene, told VICE News that he saw a police officer beating a protester with a baton. “I told the officer he couldn't do that. At that point I knew I was playing with fire, but I had to say something.” Although there were widespread allegations of similar brutality, Ulrich described witnessing other officers conducting themselves “professionally.”
Protesters are pulled away by riot police. Photo by Dan Ulrich
Observers have criticized the Taiwanese media for focusing on a minority of combative protesters. Meanwhile, videos of police brutality have been mysteriously disappearing from the web, hinting at government censorship.
At least 137 people went to the hospital with injuries, while police arrested at least 58 demonstrators, including student leader Wei Yang, who vowed to take responsibility for the occupation of the Executive Yuan.
Showing their disapproval of the KMT’s response to the protest, the municipalities of Kaohsiung and Tainan — which are controlled by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party — have vowed not to send additional police to bolster the ranks in Taipei.
Although the Executive Yuan has been cleared of protesters, protesters remain barricaded inside the parliament building. Students continue to flock to the protest and are calling for nationwide strikes. It will be up to President Ma and Premier Jiang to decide if they want a repeat of Sunday’s violence.