Anger over the death of a corporal who was allegedly abused by his officers has dealt a blow to Taiwan’s plans to end conscription which have already been hit by low recruitment.
The defence ministry plans to phase out its decades-old compulsory 12 months of service by the end of 2015, replacing it with four months of military training for men aged over 20.
The government hopes volunteers will then enlist for a longer period of military service, making for a better trained, more highly skilled military.
Military service was seen as a patriotic duty after the island’s split from China at the end of a civil war in 1949.
But warming ties with Beijing have seen tensions ease in recent years and the idea of serving in a professional military seems to hold few attractions for young Taiwanese, according to recruitment figures.
The death of corporal Hung Chung-chiu, who died of heatstroke on July 4, has dealt a further blow to the defence ministry’s plans for a professional military.
“The case could not have come at a worse time. I’m afraid the outlook for the professional soldier recruitment plan is grim,” Hsueh Ling, a legislator from the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said.
Hung’s family believe the 24-year-old’s death was brought on by excessive exercise forced upon him as punishment for taking a smartphone onto his army base.
Thirty-seven military officers and soldiers have been punished in relation to Hung’s death just three days before completion of his military service, with four of them, including a colonel, being detained on charges of abuse of power.
On Saturday thousands rallied outside the defence ministry demanding justice for Hung.
Hsueh, who sits on the parliament’s defence and diplomacy committee, said her office had also been contacted by the concerned parents of seven new recruits who joined up on July 3.
“They were enquiring if their children could quit, as they feared things like Hung may happen to their children,” said Hsueh.
Colonel Hu Chung-shih, who is responsible for the military recruitment plan, admitted at a press conference on Tuesday that “the Hung case will surely have negative impacts on the plan”, without going into details.
General apathy towards a military career is illustrated in figures provided by the defence ministry.
In the six months to June the military recruited just 1,847 people - or 31 per cent of its target of 5,887.
The ministry had planned to recruit 17,447 people before the end of February next year.
“I’m afraid it is unlikely to reach the goal,” Shuai Hua-ming, a former army lieutenant general who was twice elected to parliament in the eight years to last year, said.
Professional soldiers receive around T$32,000 (US$1,100) a month, which many analysts, including Shuai, say is unlikely to lure quality recruits.
“In my opinion, a minimum of T$40,000 per month will be needed if the military is to prompt the youths to have a serious consideration about the openings as one of their possible career options,” Shuai said, speaking of an earlier pay-hike proposal that was rejected by the government.
He added that an overhaul of decades-old training programmes and facilities would help to attract new recruits.
“Who would like to spend their time in such basic and boring training? It’s time for the military and government to face the problems,” he said.
Defence ministry spokesman David Lo was undaunted by the challenges, saying the army had reached a “turning point for the better”.
“We’re examining the existing [management] systems minutely,” he said.
Taiwan currently has around 275,000 service personnel, down from a peak of 600,000 during the Cold War.
Taiwan’s relatively large army is a legacy of decades of tensions with China, which regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification.
However, ties have improved dramatically since Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly Kuomintang party took office in 2008 on a platform of beefing up trade and tourism links with China. He was re-elected in January last year.