More than 150 people were injured and 61 students arrested after riot police armed with batons and water cannon vehicles waded in to break up a protest over a trade pact with China at Taiwan’s parliament in the early hours of Monday.
Seven waves of police brandishing riot shields marched towards students forcing them away from the courtyard of the Executive Yuan building, which demonstrators had broken into hours earler, after President Ma Ying-jeou failed to soothe public anger at his administration’s handling of the free-trade pact with the mainland.
Demonstrators chanting “No more police brutality” and “Police back off” laid down and linked arms and legs in an effort to halt the eviction from the cabinet compound, while others lashed out at police before being beaten back with batons and, as dawn broke, with water cannon’s.
Defiant students, some bleeding and bruised, pledged to continue their protest over the ruling party’s decision to renege on a promised line-by-line review of the trade agreement.
“How could they treat us like a rioter? We are just plain students,” said a soaking wet and weeping Huang Pei-feng, a sophomore of National Taiwan University, who was among those who faced the water canon.
“This won’t stop us. We will continue our protest until [president]Ma Ying-jeou scraps the trade service pact,” said Alex Chen, a student of National Chengkung University, after he was dragged to the ground during the dispersal.
Premier Jiang Yi-huah, whose office is in the Executive Yuan building, said earlier that at least 110 people were injured, including 52 police officers, while 61 arrests were made. Associated Press put the number of students injured at 137.
The occupation of the Cabinet offices on Sunday marked a sharp escalation in tactics by a mostly student-led protest movement that now appears to be showing signs of a split between anti-government militants and a main group seeking dialogue with President Ma Ying-jeou on the China trade pact.
China’s government has not commented on the protests, although an editorial Monday in the Global Times was harshly critical.
“The Taiwanese students lack the courage and determination to commit to regional economic integration, fear losing out and change and only wish to defend the status quo,” the editorial read.
Tensions first exploded into the open six days ago when around 200 demonstrators, mostly young students, broke through security barriers and took over parliament’s main chamber, the first such occupation of the building in the island’s history.
President Ma Ying-jeou denounced the “illegal” occupation of parliament by students opposed to the trade agreement’s ratification.
In his first press conference since the occupation began, Ma on Sunday called on the protesters to leave the chamber. He said the pact was vital to Taiwan’s economy and he condemned the occupation as illegal.
The agreement would open up 80 services industries, including banking, hospitals and e-commerce companies to markets and competition.
“I perfectly understand the students’ concern about national affairs,” Ma said. “But they should never have resorted to illegal means.”
Ma cancelled all public activities scheduled for Monday and will meet senior officials to assess the impact of the protest.
A Jiang spokesman said: “Such a violation of law is unacceptable and for this the premier has ordered that the National Police Administration increase the police force to dispel them.”
Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin also asked Taipei police to restore order. Police authorities were reported to have mobilised 3,000 officers, and riot police began to remove demonstrators after midnight. At least 20 students were detained.
While political protests in Taiwan are common, violent confrontations between demonstrators and police are relatively rare, reflecting the high level of civil discourse that has taken hold of Taiwanese society since the island completed an impressive transition from one-party dictatorship to robust democracy in the mid-1990s.
LIVE from the Main Hall of the Legislative Yuan