It was an unusual Sunday evening on Ketagalan Boulevard (凱達格蘭大道). A rally of about 20,000 participants was in its fifth hour, and demonstrators from across the country were taking turns on a platform telling the crowd their stories of forced land expropriation and other social injustices.
“Something is going to happen tonight,” a man standing next to me said.
Something out of the ordinary did happen that Sunday night last month: After the rally, nearly a thousand protesters broke into the Ministry of the Interior’s (MOI) compound.
A sense of euphoria was in the air. The trespassers greeted each other with smiles, commenting on how “cool” and “awesome” it was to be able to ambush the government building. Stickers and graffiti soon covered the building’s walls, windows and sidewalks. Outside the main entrance, a group of art students started spray-painting the ground, depicting a bulldozer broken down by dropping ears of rice.
Students and young protesters were not the only ones who joined the break-in. “I come with my girlfriends,” a middle-aged woman in high heels and carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag told me. Across the plaza, a toddler wearing a Guy Fawkes mask won unanimous praise and affection.
After a brief initial confrontation, the outnumbered police stood guard in and around the building and watched the demonstrators from a distance. Some took a rest near the flagpole, on which the national flag had been replaced by a banner that read: “Fuck the Government.”
The “occupation” of the MOI building ended peacefully 20 hours later, on Monday evening. It marked the first time that Taiwan Rural Front (TRF, 台灣農村陣線), the rally’s main organizer, formally called on the public to engage in civil disobedience against government policies.
TRF says their decision to launch a civil disobedience campaign was not made lightly.
“It was a long process, and we had held to our belief in communicating with the government and making improvements within the system,” says TRF spokeswoman Frida Tsai (蔡培慧) to the Taipei Times.
For years, TRF worked with victims of the government’s forced land seizures and pushed for amendments to the Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例), which the activists believe has become a tool of money politics. Their effort led to a promise made three years ago by then-premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) and then-minister of the interior Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) that four homes in Dapu Borough (大埔) of Miaoli County’s Jhunan Township (竹南) would be preserved. It turned out to be another broken promise by politicians.
On July 18, Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) unexpectedly sent in demolition squads escorted by police officers to tear down four houses in Dapu. At the same time, the affected home owners and their supporters protested the demolition plan on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei. Protesting Dapu residents like Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春) didn’t have a chance to pack; everything they owned was lost, buried under layers of debris that was once their homes.
“They still demolished the houses. We were angry. We felt that if the government refuses to change, then it must know that we will stop playing by the rules,” says Tsai.
On the evening of July 18, TRF research staff member Hsu Po-jen (許博任) posted the itineraries of Wu, Jiang, Liu and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to the group’s Facebook page so that “people knew where to go to vent their anger.” “It was not planned or thoroughly discussed. It was a spur-of-the moment decision,” Hsu says.
In the following weeks, a wave of protests broke out. Protesters splashed paint or threw eggs at politicians’ homes and government institutes. Some made use of the schedules provided by the TRF, keeping security officials on the alert.
At the same time, a small group of TRF activists disguised themselves as Chinese tourists so as to get close enough to the Executive Yuan to throw eggs and paint at the building. The irony of how the government embraces Chinese tourists instead of its own citizens didn’t go unnoticed by local media and netizens, who praised the protesters’ creativity.
Graffiti artists were also on the move. On the night before the abovementioned rally, slogans were sprayed on several city landmarks including the Taipei Main Station, National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and the 228 Peace Memorial Park. They read: “A Nation Ruled by Jackals and Wolves” (豺狼治國) and “Give Back the Country to its People” (把國家還給人民).
Last month, TRF announced their support for non-violent resistance. The tactic is by no means a recent invention, but for the first time, TRF was taking initiative to show how people how it’s done.
During the rally last month, organizers handed out pamphlets containing the list of 198 “non-violent weapons” compiled by Gene Sharp, an American academic whose writings on non-violent struggle were reportedly used in uprisings such as the Arab Spring. TRF also included methods of resistance used in the preservation movement of Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium (樂生療養院), the demonstration against the Miramar Resort Hotel (美麗灣渡假村) project and protests over the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project.
“We want to show people that there are many ways to resist the unjust government, and help them to realize that it is not difficult [to engage in civil disobedience]. Everybody is and has been doing it,” says Tsai, who is also an assistant professor at Shih Hsin University’s Graduate Institute for Social Transformation Studies.
Hsu agrees. But the twenty-something has been engaged in social movements since 2005 — when he fought to preserve Losheng — and he observes that protests against the system are increasingly ineffective, no matter which method is used.
Some activists are peaceful and calm, and others such as laid-off workers engage in more radical acts like blocking off railway tracks or staging hunger strikes. “Either way, the government chooses to ignore people’s demands,” he notes.
THE DISCIPLINED BODY
Although TRF has encouraged only non-violent struggle, critics have called the protesters irrational. To Tsai, the problem is that people often wrongly equate being rational with being disciplined.
She says the two states are not the same: During the democracy movement of the 1980s, the public posed rational requests to the government in an undisciplined and confrontational way.
“Over time, we have collectively become disciplined and much more civil and polite,” says Tsai. “[But] now we want to raise the question: Why do social movements and struggles have to be carried out within [acceptable behavioral boundaries]?”
She adds, “The perception of what is acceptable or violent protest behavior is not fixed. It is a mutual learning process and interaction between the public and activists.” Nevertheless, over the past few months, TRF’s non-violent protests have led to the arrest of several students, professors and other demonstrators.
To both Tsai and Hsu, arrest is a legal consequence that protesters face when they defy laws for the sake of arousing public conscience over an unjust system. “I feel guilty, of course. They are good kids but suddenly, notices from the court are sent to their homes,” Tsai says.
The only thing TRF can do is to prepare well, provide legal support and ensure that everybody knows the potential consequences of certain actions.
“We don’t create an atmosphere that encourages people to be on the front line. You don’t have to jump over the walls. You can stay behind to pack up stuff and be equally helpful,” she says.
Thinking back on TRF’s recent operations, Tsai says that while the protests have been widely discussed in national media, there are people whose voices have never been heard.
“We know what we are doing and have the language to say it. Farmers and workers also know what they are doing, but they can’t describe it. They are silent in terms of policy-making and resistance. I think this is what we really need to pay attention to,” Tsai says.