TAIPEI (AFP) ― Taiwan riot police unleashed water cannon Monday to dislodge hundreds of demonstrators who had stormed government headquarters in violent scenes that dramatically escalated a days-old protest against a trade pact with China.
After nearly a week-long occupation of Taiwan’s parliament, the protesters late Sunday also infiltrated the Executive Yuan where the cabinet offices are located, pulling down barbed-wire barricades outside and using ladders to break into offices on the second floor.
The assault came after President Ma Ying-jeou refused to back down on the trade pact, rejecting opposition claims that he is effectively handing Taiwan’s economy over to Chinese control after six decades of political separation.
Premier Jiang Yi-huah, whose office is in the Executive Yuan building, said at least 110 people were injured, including 52 police officers, while 61 arrests were made.
Some protesters damaged windows and doors of ministerial offices and tried to remove government documents before they were stopped, but the premier’s office was not breached, officials said.
|A protester scuffles with police outside the Executive Yuan during a demonstration in Taipei early Monday, following Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s refusal to scrap a contentious trade agreement with China. Dozens of people were detained in Taipei after violent clashes erupted between police and protesters. (AFP-Yonhap)|
Riot police early Monday dragged up people sitting on the ground, and used riot shields to push the crowds back while some of the demonstrators tried to grab their batons and pelted them with plastic bottles.
Two water cannon trucks were then deployed, eventually subduing the crowd and clearing the building.
“Suddenly water was spraying at us and it was very powerful. My glasses flew off and I was very dizzy,” protester Frank Hsieh, a former premier from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), told reporters.
One injured male protester lay on the ground receiving medical care, while another was led away with blood streaming down his face, AFP journalists saw.
“The government denounces violence and dispersed the crowd according to the law. We will not tolerate actions designed to paralyze the government,” the presidential office said in a statement.
But the DPP, which historically has favored formal independence for Taiwan, called on Ma to respond to the protesters’ demands and scrap the pact.
“Forcible dispersals will only cause more students and police to get hurt and are likely to trigger more outrage and protests,” the party said in a statement.
Since coming to power in 2008, Ma has overseen a marked cross-strait thaw through stronger trade and tourism links with mainland China ― which still considers Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification. The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.
The president warns that trade-reliant Taiwan could be marginalized without the China agreement, which is designed to further open up trade in services.
The pact is “for the sake of Taiwan’s economic future”, Ma told a news conference on Sunday, denouncing the parliamentary sit-in before the protests spread to the Executive Yuan.
“Is this the democracy we want? Do we have to do in this way, risking the rule of law?”
The pact, signed in July, is a follow-up to a sweeping economic cooperation agreement signed in 2010 to reduce trade barriers between high-tech Taiwan and the world’s second-largest economy.
“Some students are concerned about uncertainty for their futures,” said Liu Bih-rong, a political analyst at Soochow University.
“They fear that under the pact there would be a large number of Chinese people and products coming to Taiwan, while China still has a lot of barriers against Taiwan which is not fair to Taiwan and which will affect their job prospects,” he said.
Some 200 protesters ― mainly college students ― stormed the parliament last Tuesday and took over its main chamber to stop Ma’s ruling Kuomintang party from ratifying the agreement.
Police showed no sign of intervening Monday to retake control of the chamber, where the protesters remain holed up, following the unruly scenes at the Executive Yuan a short walk away.
Parliamentary speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who is from the KMT party, has called for a peaceful resolution to the sit-in.