A bulldozer stands on piles of debris after the government sent in a demolition squad. Protestors shout slogans as they are dragged away by police dressed in riot gear, while others chain themselves to gates and doors. This is the battle over Taipei’s Huaguang Community (華光社區) — the latest symbol in the struggle of the poor and the underprivileged against the rich and the powerful. More than 50 students and residents were arrested during clashes with police in April, and the question of police brutality was raised. The majority of residents were forced to tear down their own homes. Some still don’t know where they are going to live.
Broken government promises
For Huaguang residents, the forced eviction and demolition was completely unexpected as city and central government officials had made repeated promises over the years to help them resettle. During his two terms as Taipei mayor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) promised residents a resettlement plan. Instead, Huaguang inhabitants were slapped with government lawsuits that claimed they were illegally occupying the land.
“All communications have stopped. The government only speaks of demolishing the community, and no longer talks about resettlement,” says Mr Lee (李先生), who only wants his surname used for fear that he will be harassed by the government.
Hsu Yi-fu (徐亦甫), a leader in the Huaguang Student Team which lobbies on behalf of Huaguang residents, says that by changing the development plan from an urban renewal project to directly leasing the state-owned properties to corporations, the government is evading its responsibility to take care of its citizens.
“The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) says it is only responsible for removing everything from the property and anything beyond that is the responsibility of another department. The cleared land will be leased out for further development, and no one is responsible for the people who have been living on it,” Hsu Yi-fu says.
Shih Yi-hsiang (施逸翔), executive secretary of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (台灣人權促進會, TAHR), echoing Hsu Yi-fu’s sentiment, says that one of the difficulties facing Huaguang is bureaucratic circumvention.
“You go to the Taipei City Government, they say it’s the central government’s business. You question the Ministry of Justice, they say it is not up to them to decide. So you ask the Executive Yuan, and the only answer you get is that everything is done in accordance with the law,” Shih says.
According to the law?
Kao Jung-chih (高榮志), a lawyer and office director for the Judicial Reform Foundation (JRF, 民間司法改革基金會), believes that the problem lies exactly in the government’s legal action. By resorting to civil suits to solve its disputes with residents, the government conveniently uses private law, which involves interactions between private citizens, to tackle what should be addressed in the realm of public law, which governs relationships between individuals and the state, he says.
“The thinking behind public law is that the state has so much more power and resources than the general public so its behavior needs to be restrained and conform to certain principles. In private law, individuals are viewed as equals, and the law should impose as little restraint as possible,” Kao explains.
What is more confusing is that when the residents ask the government, their creditor, to waive or reduce the fines, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) insists that as a government body, it has to act according to administrative law and cannot waive their debts.