Is a coup possible in Taiwan?
At first glance, this seems to be a far-fetched, even paranoid, question. Until this year, I would have thought it so unlikely as not to be worth asking.
Sadly, although the risk remains quite small, it is no longer possible to say with confidence that it is negligible. While we should all certainly hope such a thing wouldn't happen, it doesn't do any good to simply close our eyes and wish the risks away.
To begin with, consider page four of the Chinese-language United Evening News on Sept. 20, which was filled with reports on the coup in Thailand. The coverage was almost gushingly positive, centering on a photo of a lady offering a flower to a soldier, adding the slogan "nonviolent and peaceful" -- a slogan of the demonstrations to oust President Chen Shui-bian (
An "analysis" article beside the picture was titled "Why a coup? The army took the initiative to handle a premier who was corrupt," again using the same term that the anti-Chen groups use to describe the president's alleged corruption. What is the point of this article other than to encourage a coup in Taiwan?
As for the demonstrators on Taipei's streets, it is reasonable to suppose that most of them would welcome a Taiwanese version of what happened in Bangkok. After all, their loudly stated position is for Chen to step down, by any means. They apparently even prefer Vice President Annette Lu (
This is very odd. It now seems clear that there are a small number of people involved in the campaign who are known associates of Lu, and may even think they are acting on Lu's behalf. But they are a drop in the demonstration bucket. For the vast majority of the demonstrators, Lu must be a quite unpalatable "lesser of two evils" choice, since she is not at all more sympathetic to their ideology.
Surely they would be even more satisfied if a nice upstanding general would take power? Indeed so. Having visited the demonstrations several times on varying days and times, it is apparent that a majority of them are the very same people who used to support the New Party.
This group, which emerged from the old Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) "non-mainstream" faction, was strongly pro- military, and to this day its successors have many deep ties with the armed forces.
The good news is that the demonstrators represent just a small minority of Taiwanese society beyond the New Party's support base plus a smattering of related groups in Taipei. So far, there is no sign of a genuine, broad-based national movement emerging. This is why a more serious degeneration of the situation is still not the most likely outcome.
Nevertheless, we still need to ask, under what circumstances could a coup occur? The most obvious one would be if widespread riots broke out that the police were unable to control. Sadly, again, the evidence before us suggests that serious riots are not only possible, but rather likely. Any one of the minor incidents that are now happening almost daily around the country could, with a little bad luck, flare up into something more dangerous.
Moreover, the frustration levels among the demonstrators, in particular, are certain to rise steadily, as it becomes ever more clear that their campaign to oust the president has no chance of succeeding.
This brings us to some comments by Yang Tu (楊渡), a senior editor of the Chinese-language China Times. On his blog on Sept. 6, even before the protests officially started, he laid out the whole scenario. Peaceful protests won't work, he wrote, so "the only way" to get Chen to step down is for the anti-Chen people to get "radical" and generate enough chaos so that the US would give the signal to Taiwan's army to take over and restore order.
This tract demonstrates once again that the irresponsibility of Taiwan's media is a key factor raising the risk of disaster.
It is probable that the police could handle a major riot. But what if they couldn't? Or what if overreaction by the police -- didn't they gun down a drug user on Sept. 17 -- turned the crowd against them? Or what if -- as Yang suggested -- they refuse to suppress the riot and switch sides?
Coming back to Thailand, I felt a shiver down my spine when I read the report of the comments of one of the leaders of their "Peoples Alliance for Democracy"
He "praised the army chief for staging the coup."
Under normal circumstances, it would be unfair to Chen to compare him to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Only the latter has raked in literally billions of dollars by nefarious means, and only the latter has presided over a government that has engaged in human rights abuses.
And yet, when we look at the news from Thailand, we should reflect on its lessons for Taiwan. Removing a democratically elected leader by extraconstitutional means, however objectionable or lame he may be, is no laughing matter.
Bo Tedards is a political commentator based in Taipei.
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