30,000 Taiwanese protest after 'abused' soldier dies

Ma Ying-jeou facing growing popular unrest after corporal dies under suspicious circumstances and economy fails to improve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 4:23am

More than 30,000 people yesterday protested in Taipei, demanding justice for a corporal who died after being allegedly abused in the military by his superiors.

The case has sparked public outrage over the military's controversial punishment system amid mounting criticism of the government of President Ma Ying-jeou for failing to protect human rights, which he had vowed to uphold.

Holding placards reading; "We want the truth" and "Punish the perpetrators", the protesters rallied outside the Defence Ministry building. They sang spoof military songs mocking the ministry for imposing improper punishments on military conscripts.

"With so many people coming here to demand truth, President Ma and Defence Minister Kao Hua-chu should heed their voices so that justice can be upheld," said the corporal's uncle in the protest. The protesters included parents whose sons had died, through alleged abuses or accidents, while they were serving in the military.

Hung Chung-chiu, 24, died on July 4 from what his brigade said was "heatstroke", which he suffered while he was in solitary confinement just three days before his discharge from the army.

He was sent to the brig on June 28 for violating military rules by carrying a camera-equipped cell phone.

Military investigators later found that Hung had been denied drinking water while being forced to exercise excessively amid hot temperatures.

Further investigations by military prosecutors indicated Hung had been put into confinement allegedly because of grudges involving a master sergeant who, with the help of the deputy brigade commander, ordered Hung to be confined before he was discharged.

"On behalf of the Defence Ministry, I solemnly offer my apology to you all," Vice-Defence Minister Andrew Yang told the protesters before bowing to them. He asked the public, especially parents of those whose children are military conscripts, to give the military a chance to "correct previous mistakes and find out the truth".

Hung's death has created a political storm with opposition politicians lashing out at the Ma government for failing to protect human rights in the military. Local critics and news media also said the tragedy would only discourage people from volunteering for military service, which Ma had hoped to make mandatory from next year.

Defence Minister Kao Hua-chu tendered his resignation earlier this week, but was asked to stay on by Ma.

So far, four officers, including the deputy brigade commander, Col Ho Chiang-chung, have been taken into custody on abuse charges, while 37 other military officers have been slapped with punitive measures.

Facing faltering popularity amid his failure to lift the economy, and mounting criticism of the military, Ma yesterday met Hung's family, expressing his deep regret, and promised to have the authorities "conduct a thorough review of the relevant system to avoid abuse of power in the future".