TAIPEI - President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday called for calm but refused to agree to all the demands of student-led protesters who have been occupying Legislature and are planning a major rally today in front of the Presidential Office in protest against the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement.
Students watching Ma's press conference live on TV inside the Assembly Hall of the Legislative Yuan booed as the president refused to withdraw the services agreement from the Legislature and return it to the Cabinet - one of the major demands of the occupiers.
The students said Ma failed to understand their demands despite their almost two weeks of protests.
They condemned what they called the government's "violence" shown in its attempt to force through the service pact, and vowed to stick to their rally plan today.
"It has been nine months since the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement was signed in June last year. It is now being reviewed by legislators, and we agree that the Legislature should review it article by article," Ma said during the press conference.
"But we cannot agree to have the Cabinet withdraw the services pact; otherwise it would do too much harm to Taiwan," he added.
Ma agreed to the students' demand that a law be introduced to better monitor cross-strait negotiations, but he stressed that the screening of the services pact and the process of making such a law can proceed simultaneously.
The students are demanding that the review of the services agreement be put on hold until the monitoring law is passed. They also demand that Ma promise to give ruling Kuomintang lawmakers the total freedom to exercise their own will while writing the law and screening the services pact.
The students have vowed to stay in the Assembly Hall until the Ma administration meets all of their demands.
To mount further pressure on the government, they are calling on supporters to stage a protest in front of the Presidential Office today. They expect 250,000 people to participate.
At a press conference inside the Assembly Hall at 10:30 p.m., movement representative Lin Fei-fan criticised Ma for making no actual promises in his televised response.
While pointing out that the president has shown good will in his response and agreed to have the service pact returned to a committee for an article-by-article review and to introduce a cross-strait negotiation supervision law, Lin stressed that Ma rejected the students' demand that the review could only start after the supervision law is passed, Lin pointed out.
Lin expressed regret that the president failed to withdraw the service pact from the Legislature and vowed not to end the Sunflower Movement until all of its four demands are addressed with a "substantial response" from the government.
In a more mellowed manner than his "declaration of war" against the Ma administration on Thursday, Lin called for people to join their "gentle and nonviolent" demonstration on Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office scheduled to start at 1 p.m. today.
The government is worried that such a massive protest may run out of control, resulting in a scenario similar to what happened at the Executive Yuan last Sunday.
While police have refrained from expelling the students from the Legislature, the occupation of the government headquarters lasted for less than 12 hours, ending when riot police evicted the protesters. Many protestors accused the police of using violence and beating them with batons during the eviction.
"When some of the students and protesters stormed and occupied the Cabinet, I believe the nation was shocked, asking why such a protest could have run out of control," Ma told the press conference.
He said Taiwan's hard-won democracy must not be compromised by anyone seeking to achieve their purposes by occupying government institutions.
"Any political appeal must be expressed on a legal basis. We do not wish to see a repeat of the occupation of the Cabinet that occurred on the night of March 23," the president said. "Or Taiwan would face irreparable damage."
"I call on those who are leading the students to take to the streets tomorrow to express their opinions in peaceful and rational ways," Ma urged.
The student leaders have also called on supporters to refrain from taking radical actions.
The streets around the Presidential Office have been sealed off by barbed-wire barricades, guarded by a heavy presence of riot police.
Meanwhile Military Police dismissed rumours that said they would use rubber bullets or even live ammunition to disperse protesters if necessary.
The Military Police Command said the protection of the Presidential Office and residence is conducted in line with the guidance of the National Security Bureau and the presidential security forces.