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Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 10:35:24 +0800
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
From: Chau-Yi Lin <jywang@TPTS4.SEED.NET.TW>
Subject: The Tenth day of Hunger Strike for the Right to Referendum in Taiwan

The Tenth day of Hunger Strike for the Right to Referendum in Taiwan

SEAsia-L, 19 April, 1999

Since April 10, it has been ten days since 23 activists and elected representatives began their hunger strike to demand the passage of the plebiscite law. This would establish a popular referendum mechanism in Taiwan. Such a popular referendum could give the right to determine the future of Taiwan to the 21 million people who live on the island themselves. The passion behind this hunger strike is difficult to understand unless you know the history of the massacres beginning February 28, 1947 and the many decades of state terrorism that followed; but here a brief description of the issues may suffice.

Since the incumbent Taiwan’s president Lee Teng-hui was again elected president in March 1996, but this time by the first popular vote in the history of Taiwan, many observers domestically and internationally have assumed that democracy is alive and well in Taiwan. However, the democratic process in Taiwan is still seriously flawed. Among other problems distorting the democratic process (such as the prevalence of vote-buying and influence-peddling), it must be noted that the present governmental and constitutional structure leaves unresolved the issue of the national identity and national territory, as follows.

First of all, the government of Taiwan calls itself The Republic of China, even though almost all of the world calls it Taiwan. Second, the Republic of China still claims as its national territory all of the Peoples Republic of China, Tibet, and even Mongolia-which has been an independent nation since the 1920’s. This situation is left over from 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek was ousted from China and re-established his refugee government on Taiwan. For decades the fiction that the Republic of China represented all of China was used to deny civil and human rights to the native Taiwanese, by far the majority of the population on Taiwan. This conveniently also allowed the ruling Kuomintang party to take over the public corporations and a lion’s share of the wealth of Taiwan.

Now that the fiction has worn thin and the Republic of China is recognized by only twenty-some small and dependent countries, the Kuomintang says that the threat from the Peoples Republic of China is too great to allow the people of Taiwan to democratically voice their aspirations. It does not have the courage to face all the contradictions that it has created over these decades.

But that does not mean that the people of Taiwan do not have that courage-or that they can put off the difficult question forever. Avoiding this question allows China to claim international legitimacy in isolating and menacing Taiwan-while China builds its military forces and increases pressure on several fronts. Just as in the period of the democratic movement when a few courageous people defied martial law, it is not surprising than a popular movement in Taiwanese society would take leadership on this question, rather than the government.

The demand for a popular referendum mechanism in Taiwan is a demand for the right of self-determination and human rights-parallel to the demand of the Tibetans for self-determination and human rights, despite the difference that the Tibetans are actually occupied by China and subjected to direct abuses tantamount to cultural and racial genocide. Three Tibetans began an unlimited hunger strike on April 5 in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Commission Convention.

The hunger strikers in Taiwan began their vigil on April 10. The location is the front courtyard of the Legislative Yuan in the capital city, Taipei. Among them are three national legislators and the former head of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, Rev. Kao Chun-ming-who is familiar with difficult causes, since he served five years as a political prisoner during the pre-1987 martial law period. The organization of this activity is run largely out of the nearby office of Trong Chai, twice elected to the national legislature and also himself in the line of hunger strikers. Chai and many other of the participants are associated with the Democratic Progressive Party, which since 1991 has explicitly endorsed independence for Taiwan. The smaller but more adamant Taiwan Independence Party is represented by one of its former chairmen.

Though widely reported in the news media, it remains to be seen whether this activity can mobilize enough public and legislative support to push through the law at this time. Concurrent with the hunger strike, activists of the Taiwan Green Party and others are mobilizing a petition drive in support, and are aiming for 210,000 signatures. The Taiwan Green Party is particularly interested in calling a popular referendum to stop construction of the Fourth Nuclear Plant and to eventually phase out nuclear power, as has been done in Austria. Ironically, the constitution of the Republic of China over fifty years ago envisioned the establishment of a plebescite law-but it has remained for those who would retire The Republic of China to finish the job.