My trip to Taiwan to investigate the fairness of Chen Shui-bian’s trial coincided with a month-long march around the island by the Taiwan Justice Rescue Force. The motivation for the march was to bring attention to the case of Chen Shui-bian, the imprisoned former president of the Republic of China in-exile.
The month-long march by the Taiwan Justice Rescue Force concluded with Democracy Camp, a four-day encampment outside the presidential office building in Taipei. A visit inside the protest compound was in order.
Not quite knowing what to expect, we took a bus to the demonstration site. As we turned the corner from the bus stop the sight of a row of helmeted policemen, clad in riot gear, greeted us. Along the sides of Democracy Camp riot squad members were stationed ten feet apart. At the two ends of the rectangular enclosure, the police were standing shoulder-to-shoulder clutching their riot shields.
The police were immediately intimidating to those who approached. However, inside the festive air and warm greetings were stark contrasts to the grim, solemn display of authority encircling Democracy Camp.
Democracy Camp seemed like a cross between a movie set, an outdoor festival, and a political rally. The city backdrop, lush scenery, and foreboding police presence created a charged atmosphere worthy of any big screen thriller. The literature tables, portable toilets, tents, and displays resembled any number of outdoor festivals. However, the single-minded purposefulness of the participants and the enthusiastic speakers clearly identified this as politics in action. The combination resulted in a world-class political event with all the feel of a historic moment.
Democracy Camp was about freedom. Freedom for the imprisoned Chen Shui-bian. Freedom from the Republic of China in-exile. Freedom for self-determination of Taiwan.
The encampment consisted of two types of people, day visitors that swelled attendance to several thousand and three hundred or so hardy souls who stuck it out in the rain and slept in sleeping bags on the street under a large tent. Most of the several hundred that stayed in camp each night had gray hair and memories of sad times for Taiwan under martial law and the White Terror period was the common bond.
Absent were the mainstream Taiwanese news media and foreign correspondents. The event, however, was completely recorded on video camera by men dressed in black from key vantage points on the perimeter. One of the men in black passed off a video cassette from his camera to a marked police car that stopped in traffic beside him. A nearly constant drizzle or light rain contributed a sense of exotic surrealism to the scene.
In the middle of the Democracy Camp stage sat a replica of Chen Shui-bian’s tiny prison cell with a calendar updated daily making the number of days Chen has been jailed. Speakers would be interrupted with shouts from the audience, “Free Abian, free Abian!”
On the last night of Democracy Camp, just before the 10:00 p.m. curfew, two members of the Legislative Yuan, Mark Chen and Hsiao Bi-kihm, each spoke to the crowd and got standing ovations. Both legislators have been outspoken against the harsh conditions in which Chen Shui-bian has been confined, the unfairness of Chen’s trial, and the drift to China by Ma Ying-jeou.
The grand finale featured an on-stage visit from Chen Shui-bian’s volunteer medical team. Because of the limited medical care Chen was receiving in prison and his rapidly declining health, a group of some of Taipei’s best doctors voluntarily came together and holds weekly meetings to collaborate on Chen’s treatment recommendations. The doctors unanimously support medical parole for Chen.
One prominent leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party visited Democracy Camp toting three containers of ginger tea for the demonstrators. However, when asked to speak to the crowd from the stage, Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP presidential candidate in 2012, declined. Tsai told Democracy Camp organizers that it was not her role to speak at the event.
Looking enough like tourists, we were constantly greeted and thanked for our interest in Chen Shui-bian and Taiwan. We were often stopped and thanked with handshakes, hugs, and tears simply for being there at Democracy Camp.
Outside the encampment, the police marched in unison every hour rotating officers in shifts to stand at attention in the rain. Relieved police would cross the street where a line of police buses sat parked outside a police station.
As the medical team closed out the program on the stage, a decision was made by the Taiwan Justice Rescue Task Force volunteers to break the curfew and not leave Democracy Camp. While vendors moved in and quickly dismantled the stage and tents the police backed off and left. However, event organizers knew the police would be back.
While work crews took down the last tent, the Taiwan Justice Rescue Task Force, three hundred strong, prepared for arrest. It was a quiet, solemn time. A pile of backpacks, umbrellas, and personal belongings was made to protect property from police confiscation. Colored ribbons were passed out as armbands so people could keep track of each other in groups and reorganize if needed. The hushed group sat together, arms locked, and waited.
At 2:00 a.m. the police returned. As democracy demonstrators refused the command to leave, one-by-one the protestors were carried to the police buses. The arrests took one and-a-half hours to complete.
Aquia Tsay and four other Taiwan Justice Rescue Force activists padlocked themselves in the prison cell replica now sitting on an empty street. The cell had small rollers so the police pushed it through the Taipei streets in the pre-dawn hours with the five men inside. One of the wheels broke just outside the Legislative Yaun building and there the cell came to rest as dawn broke over the city.
Taiwan’s longstanding “strategic ambiguity” clouds out even the news. A mass arrest outside the presidential office building and only one radio station carried a report. There was no newspaper or television coverage and no reports by the international media.