Lives sacrificed for development

By Chan Shun-kuei 詹順貴  / 

Wed, Sep 25, 2013 - Page 8

On July 18, Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) took advantage of a window of opportunity to demolish four houses in Jhunan Township’s (竹南) Dapu Borough (大埔). Chang Sen-wen (張森文), the owner of a pharmacy located in one of the buildings, never got over the sorrow of seeing his home reduced to rubble. Two months after the demolition and on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chang was found dead.

His body was found in an irrigation channel some time after he went out for a morning walk. Was it suicide or just a freak accident?

His death recalls that of Lai Shao-pen (賴紹本), director of the Jhunan Township Land Office, whose body was found floating in the township’s Longfong Harbor (龍鳳漁港) on May 31, 2011. Suspicions about Lai’s apparent suicide remain unanswered. The Miaoli District Prosecutors’ Office should reveal the truth about what happened to Chang.

Lai’s mysterious death may or may not have been connected with the Dapu demolition case, but the affair has now taken at least three lives: Wu Kuo-kuang (吳國光), who died of a brain hemorrhage on Sept. 29, 2009, followed by Chu Feng Min (朱馮敏), who died after ingesting weed killer on Aug. 3, 2010, and now Chang. All these people’s lives were ruined by the system, but will the government that controls the system ever be held to account?

Chang was an honest and down-to-earth person who liked to keep his thoughts to himself. He came under a great deal of pressure over his opposition to land expropriation in Dapu, and anxiety over the threatened demolition of his home and shop took a great toll on him. As time went by, he became depressed. At the end of June he retired from his job as a civil servant, intending to devote all his time and energy to protecting his home.

Then, all of a sudden, he received a notice from to the Miaoli County Government telling his family to move out within a certain period, after which the houses would be demolished. Chang suffered a mental breakdown and was taken to a hospital.

After staying in a psychiatric ward at the Shin Kong Hospital for nearly three weeks, he asked to be allowed to go home. The psychiatrist in charge of his case reluctantly agreed to his request, thinking that if he went home he would have his family members to keep him company, while the task of building a new home could help him deal with his depression.

However, after leaving the hospital, Chang still could not come to terms with the destruction of his home. He hardly spoke to anybody and rarely went out. Finally, on Wednesday last week, came the sad news of his death.

It may well be that he chose that day, exactly two months after his house was forcibly demolished, to end his life as an agonizing protest against a cold-hearted and merciless government. I firmly believe that the deaths of these Dapu residents whose houses have been demolished result from the ruthless demolitions carried out under Liu’s orders.

The Taichung High Administrative Court refused to grant an injunction to stop the demolition, because it believed that money can compensate people for the destruction of their homes. That view in effect gives the green light to the rich and powerful to seize other people’s land and homes.

Now Chang’s name has been added to the list of victims. Do the three judges who turned down the injunction think that money can also compensate Chang’s family for his death?

When Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), who was then the premier, presided over negotiations about the proposed demolitions in August 2010, he concluded that the four houses and adjoining land in Dapu should be preserved unconditionally.

When Liu opposed Wu’s conclusion by insisting on demolishing the buildings, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), who had taken part in the negotiations then as the minister of the interior, tried to gloss over this by inventing four so-called principles, including items such as traffic safety, and pretended that these were conditions attached to Wu’s conclusion to suspend demolitions. Jiang’s invented principles indirectly encouraged Liu to go ahead and rapidly demolish the houses and go ahead with the development project.

Jiang and Liu must bear the greatest share of the responsibility for Chang’s death. Recent opinion polls show that most Taiwanese think that Jiang is incompetent and unfit for the post of premier. Jiang and Liu should both resign over their disservice to the public during these events.

As recently as June 6, the Control Yuan issued a corrective measure against the Ministry of the Interior and various city and county governments, principally criticizing them for urban development projects that have got out of hand. The statement points out that development plans that have already been approved cover a total population of 25.1 million people, which is far more than the nation’s actual urban population of 18.7 million. It also states that Taiwan has more than 1.5 million empty building units, yet local governments around the nation are pursuing even more development projects. These facts and figures are a clear indication that something has gone seriously wrong.

Anyone who actively opposes expropriations and so-called urban renewal projects is likely to be labeled as a stick-in-the-mud who is obstructing local development. Others who stand in the way of profits for the rich may be the targets of late-night shootings. The first kind of victims may end up killing themselves, while the second kind get killed by hired thugs. Either way, the system, committed to destructive urban renewal, is the real killer.

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his government are currently caught up in a bout of political strife.

Will they go on being insensitive to the needs and suffering of ordinary people, or will they maybe take this opportunity to reexamine and reconsider the existing systems of land expropriation and urban renewal?

Chan Shun-kuei is an attorney for the self-help association for people affected by expropriations in Dapu Borough.

Translated by Julian Clegg