Elderly Taiwanese farmers who rioted in 1988 against foreign competition have joined the student-led protests against a trade pact with the mainland, saying they see parallels between the current struggle and what they fought for decades ago.
Some 30 farmers, many in their 60s and from the southern county of Tainan, said they were among 4,000 rural people who took part in the bloody "520 Peasant Movement" on May 20, 1988. The protest was triggered by the Kuomintang government's plan to open up the agricultural market to foreign players.
Farmers marched on government headquarters and threw petrol bombs in clashes with police. A hundred people were injured and 93 were charged for violating the law on assembly, according to a report that year by a Taiwanese human rights group.
Now the farmers are supporting students in the so-called sunflower movement who seek to pressure the government to drop the free-trade pact, which would open up service industries such as banking and hospitals to competition from across the Taiwan Strait.
"We decided that we must come after seeing scenes on Monday of unarmed students being hit with police batons and bleeding. This is reminiscent of the old terror we suffered back then," said Wu Chiu-ku, who led the Hsinchu city contingent of the 520 movement.
"It was totally unimaginable that such things could be repeated in Taiwan 26 years on," he said. "Twenty-six years ago, students supported us. Now we come to support the students," Wu said.
The farmers, who are part of the Alliance for Farmers' Rights in Taiwan, sat with the student protesters and their supporters in front of the Legislative Yuan building in Taipei yesterday. The farmers wore bamboo hats and clutched sunflowers.
Farmer Lee Deng-tsai, the convenor of the Student Movement to Defend Rural Villages, said negotiations on the free-trade pact lacked transparency.
Lee said that the government of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-was betraying Taiwan.
"It can sign deals with another [party], but how can it sign a deal before telling its own people?" Lee said.
Some farmers returned to Tainan yesterday to rest, but others stayed. More were expected to join from Taichung and Hsinchu cities today and tomorrow.