Written by J. Michael Cole.

Much mystery and disinformation continues to surround the events of the night of March 23 to 24 in and around the Executive Yuan in Taipei, which hours earlier was occupied by thousands of protesters angry at the government’s handling of a controversial trade pact with China. While the unprecedented move, which occurred five days after the occupation of the nearby Legislative Yuan, represented a major escalation, several questions have been raised about the police response to the act. Was the crackdown justified, or did law enforcement authorities go too far?

Depending on the source one turns to for information, police action to expel the protesters spanned the entire spectrum, from the irenic to the genocidal. In the days following the incident, the highly polarized media in Taiwan made it difficult to clearly assess the situation, though photographic and video evidence has since trickled out, as have eyewitness accounts.

Based on the evidence released to date, as well as this writer’s observations at the site of the clashes, we can exclude, with a certain degree of confidence, the more extreme accounts of what happened. The response was neither velvet gloved, as argued by Premier Jiang Yi-huah, nor was it a second 228 Massacre, as green-leaning media have hyperbolically described it. As it usually does, the “truth” lies somewhere in between.

As we evaluate the matter, it is important to put events in their proper context. Policing action at the EY occurred after nearly a week of occupation at the LY by the Sunflower Student Movement, an umbrella organization for various groups calling for more transparency in the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) concluded between Taiwan and China in June 2013. A move by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) to skip a clause-by-clause review of the agreement amid deadlock at the LY sparked the raid of the compound on the evening of March 18. The approximately 300 activists who took over the legislative floor succeeded in warding off several attempts by police to expel them. Significantly, subsequent calls by the government to deploy riot police went unanswered and the activists were allowed to continue their occupation. By the next day, more than 12,000 protesters had surrounded the legislature, watched by only a few hundred regular police.

Relations with police at the scene were for the most part cordial, and protesters often thanked and encouraged officers with applause when they changed shifts inside the LY. This low-tension relationship between protesters and law-enforcement authorities is the norm in contemporary Taiwan. During the past 24 months, a period that has seen a recrudescence of civic activism amid growing discontent with government policies, several dozens of protests, large and small, have taken place across Taiwan over issues ranging from forced evictions to the death of a young military conscript while on duty. Several of those protests, including a number of them outside the LY over the controversial trade pact, led to clashes between police and protesters. But with very rare exceptions, police action was overwhelmingly restrained and limited to shoving activists with PVC shields and the removal of protesters engaging in peaceful resistance (they would usually be taken on a bus and dropped off outside of town). Injuries have been extremely rare. Moreover, once the two sides had gone through the motions, it was not unusual to see police and activists chatting with each other or trading cigarettes. Many police officers in fact know the leaders by name, a rapport that isn’t conducive to excessive force. (Conversely, the government has had no compunction in relying on the courts to deter activists with threats of detention and fines for acts of misdemeanor.)

The only instances in the past two years where protesters sustained serious injuries occurred at Yuanli, Miaoli County, where guards hired by a private security firm to protect wind turbine sites used excessive force against mostly elderly residents. Those incidents occurred within sight of local police, which did not intervene. We can only speculate as to the reasons why the National Police Administration (NPA) has looked the other way.

The last instance of serious police violence against protesters occurred during the November 2008 groundbreaking visit to Taiwan by Chen Yunlin, who at the time headed China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS). Most injuries were caused by riot police truncheons.

Things became more serious again during police action to remove the protesters from the EY during the night of March 23 to 24. It was one thing for activists to occupy the LY; it was another for thousands of people to threaten the activities of the seat of the Cabinet. A little more than two hours after activists scaled the wall of the EY and slipped through unarmed police there, the government issued an order allowing the NPA to “take all necessary measures” to remove the protesters from 11pm.

That order was acted upon at around midnight, starting with police action against protesters on Beiping Rd behind the EY, which this author witnessed first-hand. As this was removed from the main site of the protest, there was very little media at that location. Among foreign media, only the author and a reporter for Bloomberg News were present to witness the events. The several dozen riot police there did not show the restraint observed elsewhere. After the C.O. at the site, observing from his elevated cabin sitting atop a police vehicle, gave the order, anti-riot units descended on the unarmed and mostly school-age protesters just as they were sitting down. Many had raised their hands to show their peaceful intent and were calling out, “please don’t attack us!” Still, riot squads went in, swinging their truncheons and wooden rods at the protesters, while others used the hard edge of their PVC shields to hit supine protesters on their legs.

Having observed dozens of protests in Taiwan since 2006, this author maintains that such acts were unnecessary and incommensurate with the nature of the protests. While police were certainly justified in removing the protesters, violent action against unarmed citizens was unjustified and caused several injuries. At least one protester was hit in the head; under normal policing practices, truncheons should only be used on the lower body. Furthermore, several others sustained injuries — flesh burns — consistent with being dragged several meters on the pavement, contradicting police claims that protesters were lifted off the ground and carried away, or Premier Jiang’s contention that police simply tapped protesters on the shoulder and asked them to leave. Other injuries also supported claims that metal batons and truncheons were used against the protesters. Whether the disproportionate use of force used against the protesters was the result of overzealous riot police or in observance of direct orders remains to be seen. It should be noted that the C.O. at the site recently received a demerit for “failing” to prevent a 36-tonne truck ramming the Presidential Office, a slap on the wrist that we can speculate may have compelled the officer to ingratiate himself with the authorities.

Those incidents aside, police otherwise limited themselves to using their shields to push protesters — and the media, regrettably — out.

Other acts of serious violence occurred at about 2am on Monday, when riot police, having removed all personnel from the media, went into the EY to evict the protesters inside. Without journalists present to record what happened, it is impossible to draw a complete picture of police behavior inside the building. However, based on the many pictures and video of the protesters expelled from the EY, there is reason to believe that excessive force was used against them. Dozens of individuals were seen bleeding from the head, including at least one medical worker who, after identifying himself, refused to leave the premises so that he could look after the injured. Video released by the Apple Daily also shows a young man, bleeding from the mouth and convulsing on the ground, before being taken to hospital on a stretcher.

Opposition legislators and rights organizations have also criticized use of water cannons to disperse protesters, saying the measure was unnecessary — those were used against protesters who were outside the EY compound — and comported risks. Several people, police included, have complained of severe stinging in their eyes after being hit by the water, which points to possible use of dipropylene glycol, better known as pepper spray.

Although an opinion poll showed little support for the occupation of the EY (30 per cent for, 58 per cent against), 56 per cent of the public disagreed with the measures taken by police to clean out the EY, a factor that could undermine any gains that the administration may have made from poor perceptions of the occupation of the EY. Interestingly, people who have defended police action have often turned to comparisons with other countries — Western democracies and China — to argue that even the harshest of police measures taken by Taiwanese police on that night were mild. While the contrast with police action in China is on the mark, one can certainly argue that the behavior of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) is not exactly a proper yardstick by which to evaluate the appropriateness of police action in democratic Taiwan.

Comparisons with Western law enforcement are certainly more warranted, and it is true that similar occupations of the seats of government there would have prompted a harsher police response. However, that argument can only go so far. One of Taiwan’s greatest achievements is that it has become, in the space of a few decades, an overwhelmingly decent and peaceful society. One cannot discount the possibility that several decades of strict authoritarian rule under the White Terror has substantially lowered the threshold of “acceptable” force within society. In other words, maybe Taiwan has actually progressed beyond more mature Western democracies in terms of the type of force that the authorities can command to control the citizenry, something that should be commended rather that deplored. If there is any validity to this assessment, then the Taiwanese public has every right to condemn police abuse during the evictions at the EY.

Our final assessment therefore maintains that the regular police force did not engage in abusive behavior during the night of March 23 to 24 and kept to the standards expected by Taiwanese society. The abuse was mostly limited to riot police, which unlike regular police, has no history of personal contact with the protesters. Their actions should be investigated. This is an important distinction, and one that activists seem to understand. Two nights later, several posters plastered outside the LY showed a black-and-white picture of a Taiwanese police officer pulling open the front of his uniform, revealing a chest with a white shape of Taiwan superimposed. “Under the uniforms, we are all Taiwanese,” reads the caption.

J Michael Cole is a Taipei-based analyst and writer. His personal blog is here and he tweets @jmichaelcole1. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image by J. Michael Cole.