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Hong Kong protests: Protest organisers in growing discord over road ahead

Pro-democracy demonstrators link arms and guard their protest camp in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Pro-democracy demonstrators link arms and guard their protest camp in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Police officers gesture at a cordon in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Police officers gesture at a cordon in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
A pro-democracy protester is treated by medical volunteers after he was pepper sprayed by police in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A pro-democracy protester is treated by medical volunteers after he was pepper sprayed by police in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A police officer with a riot shield stands guards as a pro-democracy demonstrator waves a sign that reads "Violence is not necessary" in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A police officer with a riot shield stands guards as a pro-democracy demonstrator waves a sign that reads "Violence is not necessary" in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Pro-democracy demonstrators link arms and guard their protest camp in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Pro-democracy demonstrators link arms and guard their protest camp in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Crowds of pro-democracy protesters jostle with police (blue shirts, centre) at an intersection in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Crowds of pro-democracy protesters jostle with police (blue shirts, centre) at an intersection in Mongkok on Oct 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
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HONG KONG’S eight-day-old pro-democracy protest movement is increasingly fractured, facing dissent both within and outside – which analysts say could offer an opportunity for the government to “stage a comeback”.

In an initial move hailed as a breakthrough in the crisis, protesters declared Sunday night they were withdrawing from the area outside the Chief Executive’s Office in Admiralty and reopening the nearby Lung Wo Road to allow traffic to flow from the eastern to the western part of the island.

A protester shook hands with a police officer, in a “handover” photographed by the media.

Another faction at Mong Kok also said it was retreating and would be regrouping at the main protest site at Harcourt Road in Admiralty.

The developments were announced by Occupy Central, one of the movement’s organisers, over Twitter at 6pm.

But less than two hours later, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), another organiser, issued a statement on Facebook clarifying that it had not called for a retreat.

“Every occupying site is important and represents Hong Kongers’ bargaining chip in negotiating with the government," the statement said. “Until we have concrete results, we should stay put.”

Later in the night, other protesters re-occupied Lung Wo Road. Over at Mong Kok, the crowd numbers swelled, as more arrived to bolster the ranks and thumb their noses at a deadline set by Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying.

Mr Leung had called for the roads to be cleared by Monday so that government employees can go to work and students can return to school.

Said 19-year-old Venus Liu, a defiant Baptist University student, Venus Liu, 19: “It’s not a reasonable demand.The only way he can clear the roads is to respond to our requests.”

The student protesters had asked for Mr Leung’s resignation and for the right of the public to nominate candidates for the 2017 chief executive election.

The protests were triggered by rules imposed by Beijing on the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017. China’s legislature decided in August that candidates for the post needed to be vetted by Beijing. The student protesters had asked for Mr Leung’s resignation as well as for the right of the public to nominate candidates for the CE job. Mr Leung has indicated both demands are out of the question.

Protesters have been blockading parts of the city including the business district of Admiralty and the shopping areas of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok since Sep 28, with businesses taking a heavy hit.

This has forced bus and tram services to stop, as well as the closure of schools in sections of Wan Chai, Central and Sheung Wan.

The government announced Sunday afternoon that secondary schools in affected areas will reopen on Monday after a week of closure. Alternative bus routes have been arranged.

Last night’s developments highlighted cracks in a movement that had melded awkwardly together. The students led by HKFS and Scholarism had kick-started the movement on Sept 26, which Occupy Central – led by academic Benny Tai - latched on to on Sept 28.

Political scientist Peter Cheung of the University of Hong Kong said it appeared the organisers are in disagreement while losing control over developments on the ground.

He noted that protesters of “unknown backgrounds – some who are obviously not students” have joined the movement. Early Sunday morning, for instance, people purportedly supporting the pro-democracy protest in Mong Kok surrounded and heckled police officers, resulting in the use of pepper spray and some injuries. There has also been a constant stream of altercations with anti-Occupy protesters.

Warned Prof Cheung: “By not retreating now, the organisers fall into the dangerous scenario of allowing the authorities – whether the Hong Kong government or Beijing – to drum up popular support to justify future measures including Article 23.”

This refers to a controversial national security law that the central government has long wanted to pass but which was shelved in 2003 after a public outcry here.

But protest organisers yesterday said they have no intention of leaving, with some students bracing themselves for possible police action.

Police Senior Superintendent Patrick Kwok earlier Sunday defended the use of the pepper spray in overnight clashes, AFP reported, while Financial Secretary John Tsang admitted the government had “no experience and psychological preparation” for the extent of the Occupy movement.

The number of injured people sent to hospitals since last Sunday rose to 165, the South China Morning Post said, citing health authorities.

The Singapore consulate issued on Sunday an alert to Singaporeans in Hong Kong, calling on them to avoid areas with large number of protesters given the "real risk of confrontation".

Signed by Consul-General Jacky Foo, the message was posted on the consulate website and disseminated via the Ministry of Foreign Affair's Twitter account on Sunday evening. There are an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Singaporeans based in Hong Kong.

xueying@sph.com.sgtanhy@sph.com.sg

With input from AFP