The Wild Strawberry Student Movement, it seems, has had enough of the government beating around the bush. On Sunday, it will attempt to bring the debate over the Assembly and Parade Law (集會遊行法) to a head by rallying about 1,000 people to demonstrate without a police permit.
As the marchers head down Ketagalan Boulevard to the Presidential Office, the government and police will be forced to come down against a sensible exercise in civil disobedience or send the message that demonstrating without a permit will be tolerated. The organizers have advertised well in advance that they intend to break the law, which is nothing more than a relic of the Martial Law era and a blemish on Taiwan’s democracy that should have been amended long ago.
The government could be tempted to respond. After all, doing so would only require pointing to the law books and claiming that it is bound to abide by them.
But the Wild Strawberries have an advantage. They have won support and sympathy with their weeks-long show of determination by demonstrating peacefully at Liberty Square in front of National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall since the visit of Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin (陳雲林). They have also sent a message that members of a younger generation often labeled as apathetic and spoiled — the “strawberry generation” — have passionate opinions about the course their country is taking.
The students have, furthermore, made efforts to be non-partisan. Their message is that anyone who values the nation’s democracy, regardless of political affiliation, should not stand for the assembly law as it exists today. They have sent invitations for their activities to politicians across party lines and have promised not to allow any symbols of political affiliation at this weekend’s demonstration.
All of this means that the government and police should think twice before attempting to enforce the assembly law on Sunday, at a time when the reputation of both is under scrutiny.
The integrity of the police has been under attack since its questionable response to demonstrations during Chen’s visit, and overzealous police chiefs have since been promoted despite employing heavy-handed measures.
At the same time, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is having a difficult time defending itself against allegations that range from influencing prosecutors to intimidating the media.
On Sunday, the Judicial Reform Foundation leveled criticism at prosecutors for leaking information to the press, possibly to influence public opinion on certain cases. The foundation also accused prosecutors of singling out pan-green figures for arbitrary detention in violation of their rights. Just one day later came a scathing rebuttal from foreign academics to Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng’s (王清峰) defense of the prosecutors’ actions.
Much to the chagrin of the Ma administration, the doubt cast on its dedication to human rights is not melting away. These questions have even stolen thunder from the money-laundering allegations against the former first family. This, at a time when the government hoped to score sorely needed points as details of the case emerge.
If the Ma administration is concerned about the allegations against its integrity, it should neither ask police to enforce the objectionable elements of the assembly law on Sunday nor turn a blind eye to the rally. Instead, it should recognize the significance of the Wild Strawberries’ gesture and show its dedication through an expeditious overhaul of the assembly law.