30,000 Taiwanese Protesters Demand Truth and Military Transparency

The suspicious death of a Taiwanese army soldier has sparked a public debate on the lack of transparency in the military.  On Saturday the 20th of July, a crowd of 30,000 protesters dressed in white gathered in front of the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence to demand the truth of the circumstances of the soldier’s death.

As many other Taiwanese men, Hung Chung-Chiu was serving his mandatory one-year military service and was due for discharge on the 7th of July. Against base camp rules he brought his mobile phone into the barracks, and was sent into the military confinement facility as punishment for this offence. Hung’s punishment involved strenuous physical exercise in the blistering heat with temperatures well over 30 degrees. Hung’s complaints of feeling unwell were ignored, and after a routine exercise following his release he collapsed in the barracks’ canteen. Arriving at the hospital Hung could not be saved and died the following morning of heavy internal bleeding caused by a severe heatstroke.

Hung’s death lead to public questions about the circumstances of his punishment. Vice Commander of the Army stated in a press conference initial investigations into the circumstances revealed several problems: (1) the doctor who attended Hung was untrained, (2) the confinement regulations were problematic, and (3) monitoring personnel for his confinement had neglected their duties.

Even more problematic are clues that military superiors may have tried to cover-up the abuse of Hung during his confinement. CCTV footage shows 80min and 30min blank sections on the 1st and 3rd of July respectively. In particular the time just before Hung’s collapse has raised questions, but the military claim that Hung was not visible on the CCTV as he was standing in a corner. The footage is currently under investigation. In addition, the diary that Hung had kept only had his last entry mid-December of 2012 after which there were no entries. Media and family members suspect the entries were torn out after the military had seized Hung’s diary after his death.

The aforementioned factors seem to suggest heavy abuse of corporal Hung on the part of the superiors in charge of his confinement. Some activists suggested that the punishment was out of proportion to his offence (bringing the mobile phone), because he had brought the phone onto the terrain to get evidence of corruption/misconduct in his army regiment. However this is all mere speculation. Whereas mobile phones are often taken onto the terrain in other camps, Hung’s camp was notorious for being one of the more strict and harsh camps.

Hung’s death was not seen in isolation, but perceived as indicative of more systemic flaws within the military. The past years the public image of the military has been deteriorating. Even though Taiwan has come a long way since the end of martial law and “white terror” in 1987, the military seems to be the place where this legacy still plays some role in the veil of secrecy surrounding the military’s practices. The professional military enjoys great privileges in relation to remuneration and pension benefits, but has not been accountable to the public and has always handled affairs internally. The past ten years there were twelve other deaths that have been labelled as ‘suicide’ by the military, but no public investigation was made and the circumstances were dubious (‘suicide’ victims with duck-taped arms and legs for example). As military service is mandatory, there were many ex-conscripted soldiers among the 30,000 protesters who shared their personal experiences. Stories went around of superiors who single out the soldier who just graduated from one of the top universities to set an authoritative example to others. You can call a special hotline for military abuse, and even though you are told that your identity will remain anonymous, the first person to find out about your call is your superior.

The demand of the activists last Saturday was therefore a call for truth and military transparency and accountability. Even though the military inevitably has an environment of harsher and physically more demanding treatment, its military officers are not outside of the law and must obey to basic principles of human rights. Soldiers are not civilians but they are still human beings. Especially since the military service is mandatory and not voluntary, there should be greater transparency and accountability towards the Taiwanese people.

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Taiwan has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and more recently (in 2009) has also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Fundamental to these treaties is the prohibition of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment. If the allegations are true, the officers in charge of Hung’s confinement may have abused their power and violated fundamental international human rights principles.

It is now up to the Taiwanese government to demonstrate how it will comply with its human rights obligations. If Taiwan would follow a European example in human rights law, it would be under an obligation to ensure a reasonable enquiry is carried out that is independent and involves public scrutiny.

So far the Minister for National Defence seems to be quite perceptive to the general public sentiment. The Minister offered an official apology to Hung’s family members, and appeared in front of the protesters deeply bowing to the crowd after which he apologised for Hung’s death. For now the confinement facility where Hung was punished is closed until further investigations have been carried out. The Minister for National Defence has stated that considerations for military reform are on the table.

The problem lies with the judicial action being taken. Even though a civil court will deal with the case of the allegedly tempered videos, the truth surrounding the abuse of Hung and the involvement of military officers is only done behind closed doors in a military court. The public has little confidence in the independence of the military tribunal, and already suspects the outcome will not be truthful.

The Taiwanese government should set an example and initiate a proper transparent investigation into the truth of Hung’s death and bring the suspects to a fair trial. In addition, an in-depth investigation into abuse within the military in general will aid the government in its attempts to reform the military and increase popularity to enrol when it transitions to a voluntary service in 2015.

 

 

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Taiwan, Uncategorized

3 responses to “30,000 Taiwanese Protesters Demand Truth and Military Transparency

  1. Alex Wang

    I’m a ex Taiwan Air Force air defense artillery company S1 (responsible for all things personnel), found your post via reddit. Some quick background information related to your post that may help other readers see beyond just the facts.

    1) Corporal Hung was what’s called a prep-sergeant. These are people with masters or higher civilian degrees who pass designated exams prior to service, who start as corporals with extra specialization training. As he was assigned staff duties, he would have been expected to bring his private mobile phone and stay in contact. This is common knowledge and common practice, even though it is against regulations. Everyone knows about this, from generals down to privates. Since his duties include overseeing vehicles in transit outside of his base, he would have had to have that phone on him during the whole time of his service, not just the last month.

    2) According to regulations, the correct punishment for his offense was a simple admonition, plus a few hours of information security lectures. Yet he was thrown into confinement. In fact I have seen other officers and sergeants receive just admonitions for exactly the same offense, most of the times not even punished at all except for a verbal warning.

    3) As an S1, I know how time consuming and how difficult it is to send someone into confinement. The paperwork involved and the ranks that have to consent mean most people don’t bother unless you have a real grudge against the subject. Especially in Taiwan, when a compulsory serviceman is due to be discharged, most things are forgotten and people simply don’t care about you anymore. To throw someone like that into confinement, you’d have to jump through loops and hoops and the regiment commander would have to hate his guts to sign the papers.

    4) It usually take up to a month to put someone into confinement. Yet Corporal Hung was in confinement within the week. Just the medical report usually take at least a week, as all subjects need to be certified fit for confinement; Corporal Hung’s medical records show that he could not possibly have been declared fit for the exercise to which he was subjected. This means the hospital was either in on it, or bribed.

    5) Corporal Hung was spoken of very highly by his peer and the soldiers he led. But he was spoken of very badly by his superiors. In cases like this, the wrong is always with the superiors who ignore regulations and sometimes outright have illegal dealings.

    This incident is especially disturbing, causing 30,000 people to go on the streets, exactly because we all have experienced the corruption in the armed forces, and we all know the officials are lying.

    And as follow up to your story, the military tribunal agreed under pressure to “accept help” from the local prosecutor and turned over some evidence to the Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Justice for examination. The next few days they uncovered evidence that showed the military tribunal was flat out lying to the public regarding key evidence in the incident. All hopes are now on the local prosecutors.

    • Thank you for your comment Alex!!! Your comment has been extremely helpful in understanding the complex structure and regulations within the army.

      I have also been told that the officer who threw Hung into confinement was merely a Staff Sergeant, and that even though he is lower in ranking he has in fact quite a lot of power because he stays at the camp for years whereas higher-ranking officers get rotated around more often. Is that correct???

      • Alex Wang

        That is fully correct and has been causing problems for decades.

        The root cause of that is the inefficiencies in the Taiwan armed forces. Often when you need something done quickly, you have to turn to civilian sources because the military channels would take too long. For example vehicle parts that may take 2 hours to fetch from a local vendor, could require at least 6 months before your application even gets approved. But you need that truck for a mission next week. What do you do?

        You’d have to ask around people who know people and get those parts discreetly. That means you go to the sergeants who’s been stationed here since forever. None of your officers can help because officers at company level gets reassigned every two or three years.

        Most old sergeants also know the facilities down to the smallest detail. The boiler went down, it would be the sergeants who would know why and how to fix it quickly so your soldiers get hot showers. You need a lawn mower quickly because some general is coming to take a look, it would be the sergeants who know some other sergeant of a nearby outfit who could lend you one.

        So you become more and more lax towards the sergeants, and in turn they grow more and more powerful because they’re perceived by other people to be able to pull strings (“that sergeant has the ears of his company commander”).

        When a new commander comes and denies these sergeants their comfortable daily lives, then everything goes wrong. You’d get missing ammo, you’d have trucks breaking down and all of the sudden you’d be facing that giant inefficient machine known as the ROC Armed Forces. You back down and let the sergeants have their way, and everything proceeds smoothly again.

        You shrug and say to yourself, “well I’m only gonna be leading this company for another year or so” and turn a blind eye.

        Although the ROC armed forces are continually modernizing its equipment via weapons purchases, the people are still running it like the militia they were pre-World War II.

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