The arrest of Taipei Society (澄社) member Hsu Shih-jung (徐世榮) during protests against the demolition of houses in Dapu Borough (大埔) in Miaoli County’s Jhunan Township (竹南) last month has led to controversy after controversy.
It was neither the first nor the last time that someone was arrested for shouting slogans while President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was present, nor was it even unexpected, and perhaps Hsu’s arrest received more attention because he is a professor.
However, the fact remains that while Taiwan may have been lavished with praise for its democratization over the past 20 years, what this incident tells us is that, as far as the current legal system is concerned, street protests are still treated as if martial law had never been lifted.
The Police Duties Enforcement Act (警察職權行使法) has been amended to expand the rights of police to supervise street protests and, last year, the Special Service Act (特種勤務條例) was amended to give the national security agencies special service rights. The martial law-like treatment of street protests only adds to these laws.
Not a lot of attention was paid when charges were unable to be brought against the military police, who exceeded their powers, after protesters were injured in demonstrations during the visit by then-Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) in 2008. However, with the help of pro bono lawyers, Hsu is now filing charges against top-level police officials and the head of the National Security Bureau rather than directing his charges against low-level police officers.
In addition to highlighting the longstanding mistreatment of street protests by prosecutors, police and national security, this also calls for further consideration of the absurd implications of the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法) that currently governs street protests.
In any normal democracy, assembly, demonstrations and the shouting of slogans are the humble means left to disadvantaged groups that want to organize and make their voice heard in society and to put pressure on the government. This is not only about freedom of expression by shouting slogans and freedom of assembly by way of organizing; in a democracy, these actions are also the public’s last resort when they want to protest against the government. This is why constantly charging people with offenses against public safety clearly amounts to applying a martial law mindset to the handling of street protests.
In the same way, if, on one hand, the government is allowed to hold on to the Assembly and Parade Act, a remnant of the Martial Law era, and use it to protect itself or the relationship between it and industry, while on the other hand, it continues to brainwash the public by stressing the need for social order, then everyone will become captive to the government’s omnipresent ideology. We will have to continue to be satisfied with the restricted freedom that comes as a result of the Assembly and Parade Act, whose final goal is to restrict freedom.
Any time something runs counter to public interest or justice and we want to put pressure on the government, we will have to rely on the hope that anyone who initiates a protest will be able to mobilize sufficient numbers of protesters while at the same time being able to meet various unreasonable demands when applying for permission to hold an activity.