TAIPEI: Protesters stormed Taiwan’s education ministry Friday after a student committed suicide, amid a deepening row over the island’s “China-centric” school curriculum.
Hundreds gathered overnight outside the compound in Taipei demanding the resignation of Education Minister Wu Se-hwa and the retraction of the curriculum changes.
Tensions rose as their demands were not met and around 200 broke down fences in the early hours of Friday using bamboo poles and street barricades.
They took over a square outside the ministry building, but were unable to get any further as police with riot shields guarded the doorway.
By mid-morning Friday there were still at least 200 angry protesters in the compound demanding a response from the ministry, which has so far remained silent.
Crowds first congregated around 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 one of 30 students, along with three journalists, who were arrested last week for breaking into the ministry in anger over controversial changes to the high school curriculum, which students say favor 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 crowd.
Protesters burned pictures of Wu along with pieces of paper, a Chinese mourning custom.
As morning came, a hard core remained in the square — still chanting, “step down minister” and “retract the curriculum.” Many had slept on blankets on the ground.
“We have been here all night, everyone is exhausted, but (the minister) did not show up this morning,” said Chang Ren-haom, 18, a high school graduate.
“If he is sincere about addressing the issue he should talk to students.”
Ministry officials said they had no immediate comment when contacted by AFP.
Tensions running high
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 facing charges of breaching government premises and causing damage after last week’s break-in.
His family said that he was “in a bad mood” the night before he died after returning home from a meeting about the curriculum change, a statement from the education ministry said Thursday.
The Chinese-language Liberty Times had interviewed Lin on Sunday after his arrest.
He told how he was “very disappointed” when his parents expressed disapproval of his participation in the protests after a visit from his school principal.
“I had weighed all concerns before I joined the anti-curriculum protests,” Lin said.
“But teachers, principal — (they) are coming out to reject our efforts.”
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.
Wu, of the ruling Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT), visited Lin’s family Thursday and expressed his regret.
“This dispute has been going on for a while. It has something to do with the history and even the national identity (of Taiwan),” he said.
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.