TAIPEI — Taiwan’s defense minister has resigned, the government said Monday, following public outrage over the death of a young conscript who was allegedly abused by his officers.
Cpl. Hung Chung-chiu died of heatstroke July 4, just three days before the end of his compulsory year-long military service. His family said he was forced to do excessive exercise as punishment for taking a smartphone onto his army base.
Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu stepped down after the case triggered demonstrations outside the defense ministry this month, as well as growing allegations of abuse and misconduct in the military.
Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah announced the resignation Monday as part of a cabinet reshuffle he said was “aimed at responding to the general public’s expectations.” He did not elaborate on the reasons for Kao’s departure.
The opposition vowed to keep pressing the government over 24-year-old Hung’s death.
“The resignation is not the point. What the people want to know is the truth,” legislator Chen Ting-fei of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) told reporters.
Hung’s family said he was repeatedly refused water during the punishment despite being close to collapse, and that he had previously filed complaints about other abuse meted out by his superiors.
Both Kao and President Ma Ying-jeou, whose approval ratings have plummeted in recent months, have apologized for the tragedy, vowing to investigate the case and punish those responsible.
Four military officials have been detained on abuse charges in connection to Hung’s death, and punitive measures have been taken against another 26, but the measures have failed to appease public anger.
Kao had already offered to step down earlier this month, but at the time Ma rejected his offer.
Analysts have said Hung’s death also dealt a blow to the defense ministry’s plans for a professional military.
The ministry wants to phase out its decades-old compulsory 12 months of service by the end of 2015, replacing it with four months of military training for men 20 and older.
The government hopes volunteers will then enlist for a longer period of military service, making for a better trained, more highly skilled military.
But Col. Hu Chung-shih, who is responsible for the initiative, admitted recently that “the Hung case will surely have negative impacts on the plan.”
Taiwan has around 275,000 service personnel among a population of 23 million, down from a peak of 600,000 during the Cold War.
The relatively large army is a legacy of decades of tensions with China, which regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification.
However, ties have improved dramatically since Ma, of the China-friendly Kuomintang party, took office in 2008 on a platform of beefing up trade and tourism links with China. He was re-elected in January 2012.
In the six months to June, the military recruited just 1,847 people — 31 percent of its target of 5,887. The defense ministry had planned to recruit 17,447 people before the end of February next year.
Monday’s cabinet reshuffle also involved ministers in charge of financial regulation, veterans affairs, public construction affairs, aboriginal affairs and a minister without portfolio.