Wed, Mar 18, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Sunflower movement in global perspective

Taiwan researcher Stephane Corcuff writes that last year’s Sunflower movement occupation of the legislature isn’t as rare an occurrence as you might think

By Stephane Corcuff  /  Contributing reporter


Three historical events and memories came back to me before I landed in Taiwan last March. The first, in 1993, the shelling of Moscow’s parliament, in the midst of the conflict between Boris Yeltsin and the undemocratic Russian Federation’s Supreme Soviet. I was amazed at this black building called the White House, exploding on its right side by the shelling of Yeltsin forces — in the name of democracy. In 2011, hundreds of militants stormed the parliament of Kuwait, demanding the resignation of Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, who indeed later resigned as prime minister. Was that the start of a huge movement in the Arab world?

In January and February 1997, Bulgaria made world headlines — a rare event — when thousands of protesters laid siege to the parliament, while the country was under hyperinflation, and asking for the government to resign. The protests were led by students.

After a few days, I realized that these events had in fact been quite frequent in history, especially in recent years, though each time happening in different contexts, with different groups, different ideologies, different aims. Many more examples could be found both recently and in earlier times: Burkina Faso in October 2014, Iran in 1908, Serbia in 2000, Canada in 1849. There are, however, major differences: the Taiwan occupation was apparently unique in being long, non-violent, massive and ending peacefully, compared to other national experiences.


Storming the legislature was described as an extreme measure by both sides — on one side to denounce the non-respect of representative democracy; on the other, to denounce a “bird-cage democracy” in Taiwan that would lead students to this “last-resort” means to have their voices heard. But, if we bear in mind the existence of so many precedents, occupation of the houses of government are a regular occurrence in the course of democratic development and consolidation, since a perfect and satisfactory representative democracy remains an ideal pretty much everywhere.

And what is legal is not necessarily democratic, just as something which is technically illegal is not necessarily undemocratic. Violence is obviously a sign of failure in discussion and negotiations. But the use of the words “symbolic violence” to qualify a breach of representative democracy is a double-edged sword, as the meaning of the phrase (A necessary evil? A dangerous act?) depends heavily on the political ideology of the one who uses it.

On day two, my field work could start: observing, asking rare questions, mainly listening to what people had to say, taking pictures (lots of pictures), collecting leaflets. And, many more days before the student movement announced its dissolution, thinking about the question: How to collect those historical memories? To the students I met there, and who were sensitive to this question (most were not until the very last moment, after the dissolution was announced), I asked: “We have pictures of the Tiananmen protests and of the Wild Lily movement, but where are the artifacts? Almost none are left.”

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