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.
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.