Taiwan independence protesters take to the street in Taipei

  • Rally urges island’s government to allow referendum on formal split from mainland China
  • Organisers say 120,000 people joined protest; police say 5,000
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 9:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 10:22pm

Thousands of Taiwan independence campaigners rallied in Taipei on Saturday demanding President Tsai Ing-wen allow a referendum to decide whether the self-ruled island should break from mainland China.

The protesters were reacting to what they see as a relentless campaign by Beijing to annex Taiwan, which it regards as a wayward province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

According to Formosa Alliance, the group that organised the event, the protesters were allowed to gather only in a restricted area outside the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Beiping East Road. They had previously complained the area was too small as it could accommodate only 1,000 people.

While the organisers said on Saturday that 120,000 people took part in the rally, police said there were no more than 5,000.

The protest is the first of its kind since Tsai took office in 2016. It called for a revision to the Referendum Law and a public vote on a change of the island’s constitution and its official Republic of China title.

Observers said the protesters’ demands would put Tsai and her government in a difficult position as it would be highly risky for her to allow such a vote after Beijing had repeatedly said it would send a military force to block any formal attempts at independence.

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Since coming to power, Tsai has vowed to maintain the status quo in relations between Taipei and Beijing, a position that has won her Washington’s support.

Gathered in the narrow street, the protesters shouted slogans like “Taiwan is Taiwan” and “We are an independent country”, waved flags and carried placards emblazoned with phrases such as, “Say no to China, say yes to Taiwan” and “No more bullying, no annexation”.

“The protest is to tell the world that Taiwanese people can no longer tolerate China or any foreign regime trying to invade our land,” said Kuo Pei-horng, a veteran pro-independence activist and head of Formosa Alliance, which was founded in April.

“Taiwanese people want an independent country and to be their own masters,” he said.

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The alliance is reported to have fallen out with the independence-leaning DPP after the party refused to join the protest on the grounds it was busy campaigning for the November local government elections and doing so would distract voters.

But when the refusal was met with strong criticism from the alliance and other pro-independence groups, the DPP said it would hold its own protest event on Saturday in the southern city of Kaohsiung, where Chen Chi-mai is representing the party in the mayoral election.

“The DPP rally in Kaohsiung shows the party was worried about losing the support of pro-independence groups and that it also opposes the mainland,” said political commentator Lo Chih-chiang, who was an aide to Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou.

Many pro-independence supporters had been highly critical of Tsai and the DPP for failing to uphold its pro-independence platform, he said.

Tsai had to be aware of the interests of the Taiwanese people and the possibility of a cross-strait conflict, he said.