Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu (高華柱) resigned yesterday amid a snowballing controversy over an army conscript’s death earlier this month. Vice Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) was appointed to take over the position, becoming the first civilian defense minister since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in 2008.
Kao had offered to resign twice to take political responsibility over the death of 24-year-old Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) on July 4, according to a Central News Agency (CNA) report.
Hung died of heatstroke in hospital following punishing drills when he was confined in a military detention center. Circumstances leading to his death remain unclear as investigation is ongoing.
Yang, who operated on the policy side at the ministry and speaks fluent English, had been vice minister of defense since September 2009 and had been on Ma’s shortlist of candidates for the post in line with his plan that the ministry should be headed by a civilian.
Reacting to the news, Hung’s family said that Kao was not the person directly responsible for Hung’s death and that his stepping down would not solve the problem. Hung’s sister, Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸), said that when Kao visited her family, she told Kao that her family did not want him to resign because of her brother’s death, and that they only wanted him to solve the case and give her family a responsible response.
Hung Tzu-yung said the family has only three demands: that they be told the truth, that those responsible be seriously punished and that the military undertake a thorough reform.
In related news, military prosecutors on Sunday held a simulation of the drills that Hung was forced to perform and the emergency treatment he received when he collapsed at the 569th Brigade’s detention center in Taoyuan County.
Military prosecutors invited Hung’s uncle and Hung Tzu-yung to witness the simulation.
Hung Tzu-yung yesterday said soldiers being punished were told to do half squats, with two steel cups being placed on each knee and while holding a big book over their heads. Not long after, the soldiers’ bodies were all shaking, she said.
Military prosecutors on Sunday night released former 542nd Brigade commander Major General Shen Wei-chih (沈威志) on NT$300,000 bail over his role in the case.
Shen, who approved the disciplinary action for Hung, was charged with Offenses Against Abandonment (妨害自由罪), prosecutors said.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said the reshuffle was a “meaningless move” and that the real problem was still President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) weak leadership.
The personnel changes appear to be hasty, with Kao earlier this week denying he had offered to resign, DPP spokesperson Lin Chun-hsien (林俊憲) said.
Kao’s removal came more than 20 days after Hung’s controversial death, he said, adding that the Ma administration added fuel to the fire at a time when people are already worried about their livelihood and jobs because of the cross-strait service trade agreement.”
“The administration has not been able to live up to the public’s expectations,” Lin said.
Turning to Yang, Lin said that his biggest challenge would be reforming a military plagued by bad habits, traditions and unspoken rules.
DPP Legislator Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌) urged Yang to deliver on his earlier pledge to allow a third-party to join in the investigation of Hung’s death. Otherwise, he would not be able to defuse the crisis because the public has little trust in the government’s investigation, Tsai said.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) said that Yang has long been involved in defense affairs and was in charge of talks with the US, making him a suitable minister.
In an interview with CNA, Yang said he would work to ensure that the complaint system related to perceived mistreatment in the military operates smoothly and that human rights are better protected.
When Yang was deputy defense minister, he was in charge of military administration, promoting a voluntary military service system, adjusting the national defense organization, facilitating cooperation among academia, industry and government, and improving research and development for national defense technology. He also visited foreign countries several times for military exchanges.
Additional reporting by Chris Wang and CNA