In Dapu protests, the ring of the familiar

Rally by four families, whose homes will be torn down to make way for a science park, capped a difficult month for the Ma administration

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 4:12am

Four families who are fervently resisting efforts by a town government to demolish their homes to make way for a science park south of Taipei are at the heart of the latest political storm to break over the administration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

The chain of anti-government protests is a symptom either of the government's lack of ability to handle populist causes or its failure to heed the public's voice.

Joined by hundreds of activists, the families of the four threatened residences in Dapu, a town in Miaoli county, blocked a government building on August 18 for more than 20 hours, in what they dubbed their "tear-down the government" protest. They surrounded the Interior Ministry building, daubed graffiti, blocked two main gateways to the building and unfurled slogans reading: "They tore down Dapu today, we tear down the government tomorrow."

The protesters ignored police orders to move on. Even though the organiser had not obtained approval for the demonstration, police took no action to remove the protesters, even when the actions made it difficult for ministry employees to go to work on Monday morning.

The rally followed an order issued by the Miaoli county government to demolish the four residences while their owners were taking part in an earlier protest in front of Ma's office, on July 18. They demanded that the government not tear their homes down and called for an amendment to the law governing the use of farmland for industrial development.

The protest drew criticism from some local news media and also legislators from the ruling Kuomintang who accused the Ma administration of doing nothing to prevent the activists "seizing" the office.

They also attacked the Ma government for tolerating the activists under the guise of respecting democratic rights, saying that in a true democratic system, while the rights of all individuals must be upheld, it is the interests of the majority that should take priority.

In the Dapu case, all but four out of 945 families agreed to move, accepting government compensation and other arrangements for their relocation.

The criticisms of the Ma government for its failure to deal with the protests apparently had some effect, as legal action was initiated against those allegedly responsible for the illegal activities.

The Dapu incident, however, was just one of a raft of protests rocking Taiwan in recent months. On August 3, more than 100,000 protesters - some news media put the figure at 300,000 - demonstrated outside the Presidential Office Building demanding justice and reform of the military system. This action was sparked when an army corporal died after being forced to do excessive exercise as part of a disciplinary action.

The protest was organised by a group founded by 39 online users. Like the Dapu protest, the August 3 rally was characterised by the participation of many young people fed up with what looks like government ineptness and aloofness.

An August 5 editorial in the United Daily News in Taipei pointed out that the August 3 demonstration not only reflected public resentment towards social injustice in Taiwan, but also the public's desire for a proactive, responsible government that gave people hope for the future.

Since taking power in 2008, the Ma administration has made one blunder after another. Examples include poorly timed plans for energy price increases when the island was in the economic doldrums, a dispute over a fourth nuclear power plant, and food safety problems.

To be fair, Ma, who is to step down in May 2016, has tried hard to resolve the issues, but most of his efforts have failed to find public approval. Ma must act with the utmost political wisdom if he is going to leave office with a positive legacy.