Taiwan protesters vow to escalate action over student suicide

Protesters cross a barbed wire fence outside the Education Ministry during a demonstration in Taipei on July 31, 2015.
Protesters cross a barbed wire fence outside the Education Ministry during a demonstration in Taipei on July 31, 2015. PHOTO:AFP

TAIPEI (AFP) - Protesters who stormed Taiwan's education ministry after a student committed suicide vowed to escalate their action on Friday as the government struggled to defuse the crisis sparked by "China-centric" changes to the school curriculum.

The death of young activist Lin Kuan-hua has become a politically charged tragedy, with opposition parties rounding on the ruling Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) to demand the retraction of new teaching guidelines and the resignation of the education minister.

It comes as public concern grows over increased Chinese influence on the island in the wake of a rapprochement with Beijing forged by current president Ma Ying-jeou.

Hundreds gathered overnight outside the compound in Taipei asking for the curriculum changes to be withdrawn and for Education Minister Wu Se-hwa to step down.

When their demands were not met, around 200 broke down fences in the early hours of Friday using bamboo poles and street barricades.

By Friday afternoon around 200 angry protesters remained, shouting down Wu when he tried to address the crowd.

They demanded a straight "Yes" or "No" answer on whether he would retract the curriculum before drowning him out with chants of "Step down!" as he retreated inside.

More were expected to join at the end of the working day as soaring temperatures dropped.

Crowds first congregated overnight to bid farewell to 20-year-old Lin, who police said killed himself in his New Taipei City home Thursday morning.

Lin was one of 30 students, along with three journalists, who were arrested last week for breaking into the ministry in anger over the new high school curriculum, which students say favours China's view of the island's history.

After Wu's attempted address, protesters called for further action.

"Since he would not accept our humble request (to retract the curriculum) we will not compromise, and fight on," said student leader Liao Chung-lin.

"Now we would like to invite your family and friends here to build up pressure."

Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je urged protesters to stay calm.

"As long as you stay here peacefully, the police will not disperse you," he said.

New generation of protesters

Taiwan is a self-governed island which split from the mainland in 1949 after a civil war but Beijing still sees it as part of its territory.

Closer ties under Ma have led to growing discontent, particularly among young people.

Students occupied parliament for three weeks last year over a trade deal with China in a protest known as the Sunflower Movement, inspiring a new generation of activists.

Lin, who dropped out of vocational school in June reportedly to join the protest movement, was facing charges of breaching government premises and causing damage after last week's break-in.

His family said that he was "in a bad mood" the night before he died after returning home from a meeting about the curriculum change, a statement from the education ministry said Thursday.

The Chinese-language Liberty Times had interviewed Lin on Sunday after his arrest.

He told how he was "very disappointed" when his parents expressed disapproval of his participation in the protests after a visit from his school principal.

Lin's mother asked for other protesters not to follow his example.

"I hope all the children involved with the curriculum discussion will express their opinion in an appropriate channel," she said, sobbing, in a recording played to reporters at a press conference held by the ministry.

Minister Wu visited Lin's family Thursday and expressed his regret.

"This dispute has been going on for a while. It has something to do with the history and even the national identity (of Taiwan)," he said.

The curriculum changes disputed by protesters include a reference to Taiwan being "recovered by China" instead of "given to China" after the end of Japanese occupation in 1945.

The 50-year period of Japanese rule is also referred to as an era when "Japan occupied" the island, replacing the previous phrase "Japan governed".

The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party accused the KMT of being "cold blooded" and said the party had tried to smear the student protest campaign, calling for the curriculum changes to be rescinded.

They are pushing for an emergency session of parliament - currently on summer break - to discuss the issue.

Scholars behind the curriculum changes accused the DPP of stoking the protests.

Huang Kun-hui, chairman of the anti-China Taiwan Solidarity Union, demanded the education minister immediately drop charges against the students and take responsibility by stepping down.