TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou apologized Wednesday for the death of a 24-year-old soldier while under confinement in a military brig, and ordered military officials to investigate the tragedy.
The July 3 death of the university graduate set off a wave of anger in the country, undermining Ma's already low popularity and raising hard questions about the future of the island's military.
Hung Chung-chiu died after being forced to perform a vigorous regime of sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks and squats in sweltering heat at a base in suburban Taipei. He was only three days away from completing his mandatory 20-month service requirement. His punishment was ordered because he brought a banned cell phone onto his base.
"I want to express my sincere apologies to the family," Ma said, bowing deeply at his Nationalist Party headquarters to express remorse over an incident that has affected Taiwan's 23 million people with a force not seen since the jailing of former President Chen Shui-bian on corruption charges nearly five years ago. "But apologizing and leaving it at that just isn't enough."
Ma went on to delineate a series of detailed instructions he has given to high ranking Defense Ministry personnel, aimed at finding out precisely how Hung died.
Ma's gesture aside, the real significance of the Hung case lies in the damage it may do to Taiwan's military, now in the midst of an ambitious transition from a mixed force of conscripts and volunteers to an all-volunteer army.
Even before Hung's death it was struggling to attract enough recruits to meet the 2015 all-volunteer target amid widespread perceptions that decreasing tensions with China had destroyed the rationale for military service that once existed.
Now its recruiting job has become infinitely harder.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, and China continues to see the island as part of its territory, to be brought back into the fold by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.
Over the weekend thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Taipei to demand answers from military officials about the circumstances of Hung's death, including an explanation of why 16 CCTV cameras set up in the detention barracks where he was forced to perform his calisthenics regime all went blank for 80 minutes during a critical period two days before he died. No comprehensive explanation has yet been offered for the blackout.
The Defense Ministry has already punished 37 officers in connection with the incident, including at least 15 who face criminal prosecution. Ma himself visited the bereaved family last week, pledging his office's cooperation in getting to the truth.
The military was already facing distrust among many Taiwanese, much of it stemming from the central role it played in perpetuating a martial law regime that was dismantled in 1987.
The anger over Hung's death also seems to underscore a developing unhappiness over Ma's leadership. Re-elected to a second four-year in January 2012, the president's popularity has been on a downward trajectory ever since.
He has been routinely castigated for neglecting the Taiwanese economy amid a helter-skelter pursuit of closer ties with China and for a remote leadership style that seems more appropriate to imperial China than democratic Taiwan. The result has been personal approval ratings in the mid-teens to low 20s, amid mounting disquiet in Ma's own Nationalist Party ranks, where many now fear the party may lose the 2016 presidential elections.
"People are angry at Ma's administration," said Apple Daily newspaper columnist Antonio Chiang, a longtime Ma critic. "They're angry with his insensitivity and indecisiveness. There's a lot of long term frustration."
That frustration is plainly evident on the Website established in honor of Hung, which features dozens of angry blogs bemoaning the perceived shortcomings of the Ma administration.
In any case, Ma doesn't have much time. Term limits will remove him from the presidential office in less than three years.