By Ya-Chi Yang, campaign coordinator at Amnesty International Taiwan
Today, students in Taiwan ended a historic, 24-day occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, or parliament.
The peaceful sit-in, which began on 18 March, was sparked by government attempts to push a controversial trade deal with China through parliament.
The protest captured the imagination of thousands worldwide, spawning what many have dubbed the Sunflower Movement. The way it was organized was something I had never seen before in Taiwan.
From online to offline activism
From day one, my colleagues and I visited the protest site, monitoring events online via 24-hour live broadcasts by protesters inside and outside parliament.
What we found was a community of students who are passionate, intelligent and organized. Hackfoldr.org is a site set up by volunteers with everything the students needed to keep their action going – volunteer rota sheets, lists of supplies needed, press releases in Mandarin and English.
People across the country visited the site and donated food, water, sleeping bags and other things by completing an online form. The supplies then arrived by truck. “This could never have happened 20 or 30 years ago,” said Ming, a 23-year-old graduate student who joined the protest when it started.
Many of these young people were protesting for the first time. Yet, despite their inexperience, they did not flinch, even in the face of a crackdown by the authorities.
On 24 March, Shan, aged 24 and a first-time protester, joined a peaceful protest outside the Executive Yuan, the main office of the cabinet. Reports stated that activists, among them students, had broken into the building. Riot police surrounded the area, water cannon at the ready.
“At first, I was chatting and joking with my friends. We were hand-in-hand sitting on the street,” Shan told me later. “Then the crackdown began. People in front of me were beaten up. For a moment, I considered leaving. But I felt that leaving would mean betraying my fellow protesters.”
Shan was dragged away by police. Then, four or five riot police followed and beat her. She told me: “I was already away. I don’t understand why they returned to harm me. There was a middle-aged policeman with a ferocious face who kicked me. I will never forget his face. He beat me until an ordinary police officer stood in front of me and let me leave.”
Shan was in shock. “I’ve never seen such violence,” she said, “and now I know it is something that attacks your soul. But I tell myself and my friends that I will not be afraid. The government wants to scare us. They can beat my body but they cannot defeat my mind.”
A life-changing moment
The Sunflower Movement has had an astonishing impact – at least on those who have been a part of it. “The movement has already changed many people’s lives,” said Ming.
Ru, aged 25 and employed, is one of them. She went to the protest site in late March with friends. She can’t remember the last time she took to the streets for a cause she believed in. “I don’t watch much TV,” she said. “When I do, I feel like I am alone with my problems. But this time I saw many young people, even high school students, standing up for their rights. So I felt like I, too, needed to join in order to make change. ”
“Before this protest, I was trying to work as a civil servant to pursue a stable life,” she added. “But now I have decided to look for some opportunities in NGOs or other social sectors. I believe I can do more than I once thought.”