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Apr 24, 2009

Latest Parade & Assembly Law developments

One of Taiwan's most controversial and misunderstood laws is the Assembly and Parade Law (集會遊行法) [full text at link]. Debate over how to revise the law has been an active topic for years, and this year will be no exception. Taiwan News reports (if you don't read the rest of this long post, this report is really the more important part):

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party occupied the dais at the Legislative Yuan in a protest against proposed government amendments to the Assembly and Parade Act Friday....

The DPP said the changes didn't go far enough, and amounted to a throwback to the martial law era which ended in 1987. Carrying banners reading "Police State," a group of DPP lawmakers mounted the speaker's dais and prevented further hearings from taking place Friday morning....

The KMT version of the amendments would require the approval of a protest march from each shop, apartment building or office building on the route, DPP chief whip Ker Chien-ming told reporters. Even after the protest organizers had reported their plans to the authorities, police could still order them to change the route, downsize the protest location and change the time, Ker said.

DPP lawmaker Kuan Bi-ling said the KMT wanted to force through the law Friday so it could be used against an anti-government labor protest on May 1 and a DPP march against President Ma Ying-jeou's policies planned for May 17.

Because the protest prevented the Legislative Yuan from passing scheduled tax changes leading to a price cut for rice wine, a common ingredient of local food, the two parties also accused each other of holding up legislation beneficial to the public at large.
If the KMT really cared about the price of rice wine, then it would have used its majority to schedule the passage of the tax cut ahead of the Assembly and Parade Act, Kuan said.

Another crappy provision of the proposed law is the ability to issue repeated large fines for a number of different technicalities, which coudl all happen for what is basically a signle parade incident.

It's always best to do a quick historic overview of the law's creation and application. The very beginning?

The act was first adopted in 1988 after martial law was lifted in 1987, its intended goal being to avoid social upheaval in the post-Martial Law era, while also protecting the public's right to hold rallies.

The act has long been criticized by activists as legislation that restricts freedom of expression rather than protecting it. It requires organizers of demonstrations to apply for an assembly and parade permit before a demonstration takes place, grants the police the power to disband a demonstration if they find it necessary and forbids any demonstrations in certain areas surrounding government buildings and foreign diplomatic missions.
The DPP made revision of the law a primary goal during it's time in executive power,[1] but was unable to push through any serious revision. But nothing much really happened. Instead, the debate largely lay dormant until 2006, during the "Red Shirt" siege of the presidential palace led by former DPP chairman Shih Ming-teh. Shih's final siege, in which the crowd refused to disperse even long after the protest had officially ended, finally got him charged with violating the law (though nothing else in the month long protest got him in trouble). Thankfully, Shih and the 15 other defendants were ultimately vindicated in February of this year:

Prosecutors said that the anti-Chen campaign organizers had not applied for a permit from the Taipei City Police Department to hold a parade or rally, as required by the Assembly and Parade Act.

The Taipei District Court yesterday said in a ruling that although the police had put up warning signs and broadcast requests to the organizers for the crowd to disperse, it was unlikely that so many thousands of protesters could respond to the requests, and therefore under the “principle of proportionality” it could not prove that the organizers violated the Assembly and Parade Act.

The ruling also said that evidence failed to prove that the 16 defendants were in charge of the massive protest.

It said that because the government and the legislature had proposed amendments to the Assembly and Parade Act that would abolish the requirement that protest organizers apply for permits from the police, the act remained in question.

But Shih's camp were not the only ones protesting the law at that time, just the ones with the largest media megaphone:

The [Taiwan Association for Human Rights] and 20 other civic groups recently formed an alliance to push for an amendment to what they called a "bad" law.

Huang Te-pei (黃德北), a professor in the department of social development at Shih Hsin University, said that "police discretion" should be described more specifically in the law as this has largely been abused by the police in recent years.

"Last May, our labor union was protesting in front of the headquarters of Chunghwa Telecom. It was a legal action, but the police tried to disperse us," said Simon Chang (張緒中), president of Chunghwa Telecom's Workers' Union.

Or consider this protest, also from 2006:

On May 13, Yang Wei-chung (楊偉中) plodded through a crowd of livid students. The front doors of the Ministry of Education were barely visible behind a shifting flank of riot police and an iron gate. Yang stuck his foot in the gate's grill, intending to climb over the barrier. That's when police yanked him down and arrested him in front of an army of TV cameras.

"I've participated in many raucous protests -- in the KMT [Chinese Nationalist Party] era, no less -- but that was the first time I had such a run-in with the cops," Yang said.

During and after Shih's protests, may KMT & DPP legislators alike called for amending the law to relax the standards and give the police more power. The PFP also got into the act:

Legislator Chang Hsien-yao (張顯耀), director of the PFP's policy research center, told reporters that Article 14 of the Constitution stipulates that "The people shall have freedom of assembly and association."

However, the Assembly and Parade Law requires organizers of an assembly or parade to apply for permits in advance to the local police chief, who may find it difficult to resist political pressure from higher authorities to deny the application, Chang said.

President Chen himself risked arrest in a "U.N. for Taiwan" torch rally in late 2007, during the run up to the legislative election, because the city and national governments couldn't agree whether the parade required a permit or not (Taipei City was probably inclined to deny it, and the central government insisted it was not a political event anyway).

After Chen Yun Lin's visit to Taiwan and the resulting protests, along with the police suppression of those protests, revision of that law became a central priority of the Wild Strawberry's protest movement in 2008:

The third change we want is that at present violations of the Assembly and Parade Law are criminal acts under the law and determined under criminal law, so you can be sent to jail for a year or two years, for example. We believe that this is against the freedom of the people. We want that changed so that violations fall under the administrative laws and only fines are handed out for violations of the Assembly and Parade Law, so you won't get a year or two for violations of the law. Finally, we want them to lift the restrictions on places where assemblies and parades can be held. These restrictions are a violation of the basic rights and freedoms laid out in the Constitution.
Some called for the outright abolition of the law. Eventually, minor progress was made on trying to relax the law:

Activists have called for a change from a pre-approval system to a pre-notice system, the abolition of the police’s power to disband demonstrations and a cut-down version or the complete abolition of the restricted areas.

Although both Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators, as well as the Cabinet, support the pre-notice system, they argued on whether it should be mandatory or voluntary.The Cabinet version of the amendment insists that organizers be required to notify police of a upcoming demonstration, while DPP lawmakers, including Chiu Yi-ying (邱議瑩) and Chen Chieh-ju (陳節如), argued for a voluntary system....

The second dispute came when lawmakers discussed whether there should
be a “safe distance” around government buildings and foreign diplomatic

Today's proposed "revisions" of the law, as well as the KMT's intentionally placing a contentious issue in front of the kind of laws that would pass without protest, are good reminders of the KMT's political maneuvering and authoritarian roots. Once champions of true reform of the law, they have decided the current law is much more useful when you're in charge!

Let us hope the law is eventually reformed in a positive way that increases, rather than decreases, the freedom of the people.

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