A Taiwanese student activist involved in a nationwide campaign against controversial new high school curriculum guidelines committed suicide by burning charcoal on Thursday morning. The news has shocked the public and devastated the activist’s peers, who said that the country’s education ministry “would pay the price”.
Lin Kuan-hua, 20, was a spokesperson for student group Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance. It is unclear why Lin committed suicide, but his family said that he seemed depressed recently after his arrest at an anti-curriculum protest, according to media reports.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has expressed “remorse” over Lin’s death in his statement on Thursday afternoon, while Education Minister Wu Se-hwa said he was “shocked and saddened” by the news.
Lin’s mother told the authorities that she had tried to improve her son’s mood until early Thursday morning after noticing his distress, according to Apple Daily Taiwan. She thought that Lin had felt better afterwards, and was shocked to later find him unconscious in his room, which had been locked from within. He showed no sign of life when rescuers arrived.
Lin had recently asked his sister why he might face prosecution “even though the curriculum guidelines were wrong and he was doing the right thing”, according to the report.
Lin had said in a TV programme that he felt pressured by the principal and homeroom teacher of his school, who had made visits to his home out of concern over his involvement in the anti-curriculum campaign.
The principal at Lin’s school, Lin Shu-gui, reportedly said that she had advised Lin to focus on his studies during the home visit, but denied that she had been harsh on the young activist.
Lin had previously been receiving treatment for an emotional disorder but stopped taking medication a few months earlier. He had also stopped attending classes at around the same time, and subsequently withdrew from school in June. Lin’s principal expressed regret for his death and said that the school had been very concerned about his well-being.
New Taipei City Education Commissioner Lin Teng-chiao was quoted by Taiwanese newspapers saying that Lin’s death was “unrelated” to the anti-curriculum campaign, and that Lin’s family was “prepared” for his death given that he had received treatment for his disorder.
Chu Chen, a coordinator of the alliance that Lin belonged, criticised the commissioner for being “corrupt” and only caring about the government’s interests.
Lin’s peers said that the education ministry “would pay the price” over his death. A fellow activist said on Facebook, “Thank you for your sacrifice. I really don’t know what to say, and I will do my best to walk this path…”
Lin was one of around 200 people who surrounded the education ministry building in Taipei last Thursday. Thirty students, including Lin, were arrested after forcing their way into the education minister’s office.
The education ministry had said that it would pursue legal action against those who broke into its building and damaged public property.
Ko Wen-je, elected Taipei mayor in November, had given words of support for student protesters after the arrests: “As a parent of a high school student, I would like to tell you, ‘Children, you are very courageous. Take care!’”
Tsai Ing-wen, presidential candidate for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, issued a joint statement last Friday in support of student protesters along with 13 pan-green mayors and county governors. They asked the education ministry to refrain from pursuing legal action against the students.
Taiwan’s current government, led by President Ma of the pro-unification Kuomintang party, has made a series of changes to high school curriculum guidelines since Ma took office in 2008. In 2014, authorities announced new adjustments to the guidelines that were widely considered China-centric.
A number of protests have taken place in response to the perceived “black box”, or non-transparent, policy making process of the Taiwanese government. Around ten students broke into Taipei’s Education Administration building two weeks ago, but none were arrested. Student groups subsequently promised to step up the campaign.
Supporters of the new curriculum guidelines argue that the changes are in accordance with the constitution. A journalist for United Daily News wrote that changes such as referring to China as “mainland China” rather than “the mainland” prove that the new guidelines are not China-centric.
Additional reporting by Paul Benedict Lee.