INTERVIEW: Tsai hunger strike stoked by ‘helplessness’

FEEBLE: During his hunger strike, chairman of the Taiwan Association of University Professors Tsai Ting-kuei has only had water, but has received intravenous nutrition

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Nov 02, 2008 - Page 3

On Friday night, more than 1,000 people gathered outside the legislature, flashlights in hand. Encircling the legislature and shining their lights at the compound, they called on the country’s lawmakers to overhaul the Referendum Law (公民投票法).

The demonstrators were there in support of Tsai Ting-kuei (蔡丁貴), chairman of the Taiwan Association of University Professors (TAUP), who was on day seven of a hunger strike intended to call attention to what he said were fundamental problems with that law as well as the legislative election system.

“Hand in hand, protect civil rights,” the protestors chanted. “Amend the Referendum [Law]. Safeguard Taiwan.”

In an interview with the Taipei Times, Tsai said it was a “feeling of powerlessness” that led him to adopt the approach of a hunger strike.

OPPOSITION

Tsai decided to stage the hunger strike during the Oct. 25 rally organized by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in opposition of the current administration’s cross-strait policies.

After the march ended, he began his hunger strike outside the legislature, without even telling his wife of his plan. Other TAUP members held a sit-in protest.

“I didn’t want to go home and wait for the next time I get a call to take to the streets again. The rally was a success but it was not enough, because the KMT always turns a deaf ear to us,” Tsai said.

“How much longer can we tolerate [President] Ma [Ying-jeou (馬英九)], who is about to capitulate to China?” he asked, referring to Ma’s statement that he hoped to sign a peace accord with China during his term.

AGREEMENT

As described by Ma in an interview with the India and Global Affairs quarterly, the peace agreement would come once economic relations with China have been normalized. This included normalizing direct air and sea links, which was on the agenda for the second round of cross-strait talks in Taipei this week.

In July, cross-strait charter flights were launched and the quota for Chinese tourists raised to 3,000 per day.

Tsai called Ma’s steps “clearly a timetable for Taiwan’s unification with China,” and added that this week’s visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) for the talks made amending the Referendum Law even more “imperative.”

The checks-and-balances system enshrined in the Constitution is being undermined, Tsai said, adding that the KMT had won an overwhelming majority in the legislature because of the “flaws” of the new electoral system, Tsai said.

CRITICISM

Tsai’s criticism centered on the “single district, two votes” system adopted for the legislative polls in January. Tsai said this resulted in disproportional results in terms of the population of each constituency compared with the votes received by each political party.

Under the new system, the KMT won 58.12 percent of the votes but won 81 seats of the legislature’s 113 seats, while the DPP’s 41.88 percent of the vote gave it just 27 seats.

Because of this imbalance, Tsai said the public must exercise its right to initiate referendums to veto Ma’s cross-strait policies, which he said were selling out national interests to Beijing.

The problem, he said, was that the plebiscite law was “toothless.”

Since the Referendum Law was promulgated in 2003, it has been dubbed a “birdcage” law by critics who said the thresholds for putting a referendum proposal on the ballot and passing it were excessively high.

To apply for a referendum, the signatures of 0.5 percent of all eligible voters in the most recent presidential election — approximately 80,000 — must be collected. An additional 5 percent of the population — appropriately 800,000 — must sign the petition before the referendum can be put to a vote.

For the results of the referendum to be considered valid, more than 50 percent of the electorate — approximately 8 million people — must vote on it.

“These unreasonable thresholds limit direct democracy and deprive the people of their right to decide the future of the country,” Tsai said.

Tsai’s voice was feeble.

During his hunger strike, he has only had water, refusing food, but has received intravenous nutrition.

The 60-year-old hydraulic engineering professor from National Taiwan University was sent to the hospital for a health examination after joining the 1,000 or so people at the rally in front of the legislature on Friday night in a wheelchair.

He then called off his hunger strike temporarily, and Wu Li-hui (吳麗慧), secretary-general of the TAUP, began her own.

Tsai promised to continue his hunger strike once his doctor allowed it, saying that he looked forward to seeing young and old people alike join in supporting reform.