TAIPEI: Hundreds of protesters gathered in Taipei early on Friday calling for the education minister to resign after a student committed suicide, amid a deepening row over the island’s “China-centric” school curriculum.
Several hundred people, some holding white roses and candles, congregated outside the education ministry at midnight to bid farewell to 20-year-old Lin Kuan-hua, who police said killed himself in his New Taipei City home Thursday morning.
Lin was reportedly one of 30 students, along with three journalists, who were arrested last week for breaking into the ministry in anger at controversial changes to the high school curriculum, which students say favour China’s view of the island’s history.
“We will not let Lin Kuan-hua die in vain!” Chu Chen, a spokesman for the student protest group, told the growing crowd, as chants calling for Education Minister Wu Se-hwa to step down rang out.
As the hours passed with no response from Wu, a group of angry students broke down part of a fence around the ministry and took over a square in front of the building.
Later the crowds began to thin, leaving only a core of some 200 people in the square — still chanting “step down minister” and “retract the curriculum”. The group vowed to remain until morning.
Protesters earlier burnt pictures of Wu along with pieces of paper, a Chinese mourning custom, as they waited under the watchful eye of dozens of police behind barricades.
Lin’s death comes as tensions are running high over fears that China is exerting greater influence over Taiwan, a self-governed island which split from the mainland in 1949 after a civil war but which Beijing still sees as part of its territory.
The 20-year-old, who dropped out of vocational school in June, was reportedly facing charges of breaching government premises and causing damage after last week’s break-in.
“Relatives have expressed that Lin was in a bad mood last night after returning home from a meeting about the education ministry curriculum change,” a statement from the education ministry said.
Lin’s mother asked for other protesters not to follow his example.
“I hope all the children involved with the curriculum discussion will express their opinion in an appropriate channel,” she said, sobbing, in a recording played to reporters at a press conference held by the ministry.
“I don’t want to see another incident happening like Kuan-hua,” she said without explaining why Lin took his life or whether he left a suicide note, describing him as “a happy angel”.
Education Minister Wu of the ruling Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT) visited Lin’s family Thursday.
“We really regret this incident and that we couldn’t stop this from happening,” Wu told reporters.
“This dispute has been going on for a while. It has something to do with the history and even the national identity (of Taiwan).”
The KMT has forged a rapprochement with Beijing since President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, sparking public concern over closer ties.
The curriculum changes disputed by protesters include a reference to Taiwan being “recovered by China” instead of “given to China” after the end of Japanese occupation in 1945.
The 50-year period of Japanese rule is also referred to as an era when “Japan occupied” the island, replacing the previous phrase “Japan governed”.
The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party accused the KMT of being “cold blooded” and said the party had tried to smear the student protest campaign, calling for the curriculum changes to be rescinded.
Huang Kun-hui, chairman of the anti-China Taiwan Solidarity Union, demanded the education minister immediately drop charges against the students and take responsibility by stepping down.