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Politics and Tear Gas: When Parliaments Get Punchy

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BUSAN, South Korea – When South Korea's conservative Hanara Party secured passage of a free trade agreement with the United States last week, anti FTA Democratic Labor Party representative, Kim Sun-dong, decided that enough was enough. He opened a tear gas canister directly in the face of Vice Speaker Chung Ui-hwa, as if Chung had just given carte blanche to the East India Company. Chung has since been seen around town boasting that “they use that shit on crowds.”

An editorial in the Joongang Ilbo headed “Martyrs Don’t do Tear Gas,” said Kim’s “action amounts, more or less, to terrorism against parliamentary democracy.”

The bill still passed 151 to 7. No word on whether tear gas legislation would be introduced at a later date.

Such disorder can be exceptional telegenic fodder for the nightly news, but is not exceptional in itself. Scraps have semi-regularly broken out in the Korean parliament since the country’s transition to democratic civilian rule over two decades ago.



Objects have been produced in anger before. Innocent furniture was flung by members of the Uri Party attempting to block the impeachment of Roh Moo-hyun in 2004. This brawl was a drawn out scrum memorable for scenes of weeping members consoling each other as their filibuster failed. Those not directly involved burst into chants of “Je-rry! Je-rry!

However, parliamentary violence should not be mistaken for a phenomenon unique to South Korea.

Even the mother of all Parliaments at Westminster has witnessed moments of excessive body language. Conservative MP Michael Heseltine symbolically waved the parliamentary mace at his Labour Party foes in 1976. Lacking a song of his own, he was protesting their impromptu rendition of The Red Flag.

And earlier this year the Italian parliament witnessed an impassioned outbreak of  grappling and shoveing following one member muttering something about another member’s mother.
East Asian parliaments, in particular though, have seen their fair share of legislative battles.

If these brawls were internationally contested, Taiwan would surely take the Gold. Its politicians quickly tire of just talking. The stacked compression of law makers’ bodies during physical disputes has at times looked like an attempt to form a world record breaking human pyramid.

Violence is in Taiwanese parliamentary politics is not just a guy thing, either. Democratic Progressive Party member Chuang Ho-tzu was accused of spitting at an opposition colleague in a 2006 “debate”. By all accounts she hawked up for a solid ten seconds before letting it fly. 



Slam dancing on Taiwan's parliament floor.


The dispute revolved around her ruling party’s anger with the opposition’s proposal to end curbs on travel links with Beijing . The disturbance didn’t help dispel the stereotype about the Chinese eating everything. It came after her party colleague Wang Shu-hui had swallowed the written proposal .

In a 1997 incident in the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly, microphone stands proved potently adaptable as weapons, morphing into both spears and clubs. This was a full blown riot and gave Steve Chen the idea of inventing youtube. Four members of Maharashtra Navaniramana Samithi were suspended. A debate then ensued about the advisability of nailing down everything in the chamber. The debate proceeded without microphones.



In Israel’s Knesset ushers get involved to remove the perpetrators when push and shove come. They were required when Palestinian member MK Hanin Zoabi –who had taken part in the Gaza Flotilla- rose to speak in a subsequent debate on the matter. Her very presence was seen as symbolic of violence as she was insultingly termed a “Trojan Horse” by other MKs. As fighting broke out at the podium sixty-five Islamic Jihad members burst out of her stomach and ransacked Tel Aviv.

Both Turkish and Indonesian parliament floors have also experienced protracted incidents of out of shape argy-bargy amongst the country’s principle elites.

It is often remarked that such violence occurs principally in the debating chambers of only younger democracies. In 2004, however, a Taiwanese politician suggested members take breathalyzer tests before admission to chambers, pointing to a more simple explanation.

Striking, however, is the fact that the issues which turn violent are often the sort which have historically polarized a country. This was true with the question of forming deeper connections with The Peoples Republic in Taiwan. And it is true in Europe, also. A 2010 brawl in the Ukraine Parliament blew up over the issue of extending Russia’s lease of a Black Sea Port for its fleet. Smoke bombs were quite effectively launched during a literally tasty encounter. Eggs were thrown and the thing ended up resembling a branch of the Rotarians rehearsing an American teen flick.

The first reaction of observers is to decry the antics of their elected representatives. They will then drily remark upon the dismal hopes for the country as a whole given the evident rabble in charge. But might we not find a positive as we watch our leaders disgrace themselves in scenes of second rate violence?

Some might see in these legislative brawls the effective decoying or sublimation of potentially much greater tensions in society. Our elected politicians are simply acting out the pent up violence of the masses? They are spending, as our representatives, the people’s violent capital.

Others, of course, might just see a collection of immature rowdies missing the point of democratic assembly.


NB Armstrong is a freelance writer and translator living in Changwon. He can be reached at [email protected]

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