To understand the "severity" of the "hunger strike" at CKS Memorial Hall, now in its ninth day, look no further than the guy selling sausages at the curbside. Here you'll find a ring of men chewing the fat, as it were, about how Taiwan's nascent democracy is in peril and the economy has tanked.
"In a mature democracy, when something is unfair or the people make a mistake, there are laws to correct it," one man said.
"A mature democracy would never have elected Chen Shui-bian," said another.
As they commiserate, others stand in the circle nodding in grimaced agreement. They seem to search their minds for a new way to articulate what has been shouted, chanted and posted on placards in this area of the capital for the past three weeks: A feeling that they have somehow been cheated and denied the truth.
Their vitriol is tempered as they eat sausages and through an abiding belief that the students in nearby tents who are refusing food have an innate understanding of the nation's problems. If Taiwan's democracy is immature, they say, it will eventually mature with its youth.
That may require a bit of growing on the part of the young protesters, whose five demands have been called an emotional response to the outcome of last month's presidential election and the shootings of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Vice-President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) that preceded it. Rather than making concrete demands, the students are largely petitioning for apologies.
They claim to be an apolitical group, but their appeals have proven to be less than broadly appealing. Where their biases have become apparent, they've tried to mask them.
The second of their five demands, for example, was recently amended to expand the scope of the independent investigation into the March 19 shootings (A case which already has some the world's best forensic investigators working on it.) Now the demand says the investigating committee could also look into the 1980 murders of Lin I-hsiung's (林義雄) family, and the 1981 death of writer and democracy activist Chen Wen-cheng (陳文成).
1. The pan-blue and pan-green camps must publicly apologize for the constitutional impasses and political turmoil of the past four years.
2. An independent investigative committee must be formed to unveil the truth behind the shootings of President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu; the committee could also investigate the 228 Incident and the unsolved murders of Chen Wen-cheng and the Lin family.
3. The Legislative Yuan must immediately pass the Ethnic Equality Act and establish an Ethnic Equality Committee.
4. President Chen must publicly apologize for spoiling administrative impartiality, inappropriately manipulating the mass media, slighting the Legislative Yuan, and exploiting the spirit of the Constitution.
5. Chen must also pledge to obey the Constitution, promptly form a coalition government and endow the majority party in the Legislative Yuan with the right to form a Cabinet following the December legislative elections.
Source: Independent Union of University Students
The committee could also, they say, investigate the 228 Incident -- 57 years later.
Their self-described hunger strike has all the trappings of a protest. Banners cover every available surface. A microphone is open to anyone who has something (or nothing) to say. A man with a guitar leads an endless chorus of We Shall Overcome. A lyrics sheet complete with a short bio of Joan Baez is available at the volunteer desk.
The area in which the students sit has been cordoned off with a red plastic ribbon to which supporters have tied messages wishing the protesters well. Others have laid flowers along the perimeter. A sign hanging in front of the strikers and in prominent view of television cameras records the number of hours the strikers have thus far endured. It's changed every hour on the hour.
How many people are striking?
"Right now? I'm not sure," said a lead volunteer who refused to give her name.
No one can keep the numbers straight for all the people coming and going. Groups of students spend 12-hour periods at the protest site refusing to eat, then leave for the night and go about their regular schedules -- and dietary regimens -- until returning the next day.
A core group of eight took up their task with more seriousness; some of them have refused food for nearly a week and a couple of them have even refused water for days at a time. No one has gone all nine days of the "hunger strike" without nourishment.