Taiwan activists rally to keep 'Sunflower' spirit alive

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwanese rallied on Friday to mark the anniversary of the end of the "Sunflower Movement", which saw demonstrators occupy parliament for more than three weeks in a move that shook warming relations with Beijing.

Protesters linked hands and shouted slogans urging the government to "return power to the people" as they circled the parliament in Taipei in the latest show of opposition to increasing mainland influence.

Fears that China is extending its control over Taiwan have been growing after a thaw in relations under current President Ma Ying-jeou, whose Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party suffered its worst ever showing in local polls in November.

Ma last week said ties with China have "returned to normal" since protesters took over parliament last year to show their anger at a planned trade pact they argued placed the island under Beijing's sway.

Police said around 1,000 people had turned out for Friday's protest, which came after hundreds rallied last month to mark the beginning of the occupation and several other wildfire demonstrations in recent weeks.

"I think Taiwan society has changed after the 'Sunflower Movement' and its impact continues to spread. I believe this force of change will help Taiwan move towards a positive direction," said Huang Kuo-chang, a scholar and prominent leader of the movement.

"The people will rise again if the Ma government (... hurts) Taiwan's national dignity or disregards the people's opinions," he said.

Demonstrators are pushing for revisions to the island's referendum law so that major controversial issues can more easily be put to a public vote, as well as a law to make it easier to oust elected officials deemed unfit for office.

The sunflower symbolises a desire to bring issues to light.

There have also a string of protests against Taiwan's bid to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and over controversial new Chinese flight routes over the Taiwan Strait.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war, but Beijing still considers the self-ruled island part of its territory awaiting reunification. It has not ruled out using force should Taipei declare independence.

While the thaw in ties has seen a boost to trade and tourism, concerns over Chinese influence have led to a public backlash.

"I think the government has done many things that many people disapproved of such as under-the-table negotiations for the service trade deal," said high school student Lin Yu-tung.

"The people are the masters and we should have a say in major issues." The "Sunflower Movement" activists that occupied parliament complained the trade pact - one of several agreements signed with Beijing since Ma came to power in 2008 - was agreed in secret and would leave the island vulnerable to Chinese influence.

It remains on hold pending an oversight bill, a key demand of protesters to guard against secret deals.