Taiwan protesters on month-long march ahead of referendums

Autumn Struggle participants napping by the side of the road during their march from Taiwan's Pingtung County to capital Taipei. PHOTO: LEE CHIEN-CHENG

TAIPEI - Participants of an annual demonstration in Taiwan with some 30 years of history are rallying support for their cause this year in a new way: marching from the south to the north of the island ahead of key referendums next month.

Previously a one-day rally in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei, the Autumn Struggle this year will last at least 30 days, as participants walk from the southernmost county of Pingtung to capital Taipei.

The event is focused on two of the four referendums on Dec 18 that relate to pork imports and protection of algae reef.

The protesters are against the government's policy reversal to allow imports of pork containing the additive ractopamine, and the plan to construct Taiwan's third liquefied natural gas terminal in the north-west municipality of Taoyuan where an algae reef is located.

About a dozen participants from labour unions and civic groups began walking north from Pingtung last Saturday (Nov 13), logging 15km to 20km each day. They hold impromptu talks to brief locals on the referendum questions when they stop in a different town for the night.

"Some people join us to walk for a day or so before returning to their homes when their schedule permits. There are even those who will take the train south to join us for a few days before going back north for work," said event spokesman Lee Chien-cheng, who does marketing for a small farm in Kaohsiung.

The goal is to arrive in Taipei on Dec 12 - about a week before the referendums - so that the final rally in the city will prompt people to vote against the two issues.

"We have been discussing this new way of expressing what we believe in for a while, but decided to realise it this year because of the referendums," said Professor Huang Te-Pei at Shih Hsin University's Graduate Institute for Social Transformation Studies.

"We did not include the two other topics in question as the groups participating this year were unable to reach a consensus on where we stand, and we respect different opinions," said Prof Huang, an Autumn Struggle veteran.

The other two questions are whether a nuclear power plant near Taipei should be activated, and if referendums should be held on the same day as major elections in the future.

The Autumn Struggle began as a march in 1988 when workers called for labour rights laws to be amended, the same year Taiwan made public assemblies and marches legal after martial law was lifted.

"In the early 90s, the Autumn Struggle was backed by major labour unions, and their participation sometimes prompted the government to respond to our calls sooner, if at all," Prof Huang recalled.

As the march gained momentum each year, more civic groups - many of whom were not labour-oriented - joined the event, and the organisers decided to also address issues beyond labour concerns.

An Autumn Struggle organiser speaks to a crowd at a press conference announcing the start of this year's event, in Taipei on Nov 17, 2021. PHOTO: LEE CHIEN-CHENG

The march grew to accommodate those calling for improvements in Taiwan's national health insurance policies and equal gender laws.

Since last year, "people who were concerned about food safety and environmental issues also joined", said Mr Lee. "There are 30 to 40 civic groups that participate in planning the Autumn Struggle each year."

He considered last November's event extremely successful, as more than 50,000 people marched in Taipei to protest pork imports from the United States.

The larger-than-usual turnout was partly owing to support from the main opposition party Kuomintang, which has been vocal in its disapproval of the government's decision to begin importing pork from this year.

There are food safety concerns as livestock in the US are fed with ractopamine to enhance the leanness of meat. Its use is banned in Taiwan, mainland China and about 160 countries and regions due to suspected negative impact on humans.

But President Tsai Ing-wen has taken to her social media accounts in recent weeks to voice her support for the pork import policy, which she said will pave the way for a bilateral trade agreement with the US.

She also argued that the natural gas receiving terminal in Taoyuan is a necessary step as the government is working to phase out the use of fossil fuels.

Mr Lee said: "These, especially the pork import issue, are things that affect every Taiwanese person, given how much pork we consume. I think the fact that the government announced the import policy without briefing the people first was unacceptable... and we want to express that with the Autumn Struggle."

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