Mother Ko's fight for justice
The more lawmakers ignored her, the more determined she became to seek justice
On a grey, chill November day in Taipei, a trim woman with neat black hair sat slumped outside the headquarters of Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party, oblivious to the drizzle. Mother Ko Tsai Yu-chiung was deeply depressed, for 33 weeks she had been demonstrating for new laws to compensate families of road accident victims. Now funds of the Association for Traffic Accident Victims she had founded were almost exhausted and it seemed that all her efforts had been in vain.
Then a party official came out of the building and walked up to her. “Mother Ko,” he said. “There is someone who would like to see you.”
This article first appeared in the Chinese edition of Reader's Digest. Reader's Digest holds copyright in the text
Mother Ko's Law
Seven years ago, in the summer of 1989, Mother Ko was alone at home in Tainan, southern Taiwan. The college term was ending and she was eager to meet her son Ko Jong-yeu at the railway station the next day. Then the phone rang. Is he a day early? thought Mother Ko.
She picked up the phone and heard a Taichung policeman on the line: “Your son Jong-yeu’s been involved in a traffic accident,” he said. “Please come as quickly as you can.”
As her husband Ko Tian-yeun was on a business trip by then, Mother Ko and her daughter Ko Pel-ping took a taxi to Taichung, with Mother Ko silently praying for her son throughout the two-hour journey. When they arrived in Taichung, police took them to the scene of the accident. A body lay by the road, the head covered with a white cloth. Mother Ko recognised his clothes, his hands. It was Jong-yeu. Stunned, Mother Ko watched dumbly as her daughter flung herself on the body, crying, “My brother!” Overwhelmed by grief and shock, Mother Ko collapsed.
Later, when she was recovering at the police station, a group of men from the driver’s truck company had gathered to support him. “We’ve run over a lot of people,” Mother Ko heard one say. “This is just another.”
Mother Ko had another shock coming. When she sought recompense she found that all insurers, had to pay -- even if dead victims were completely blameless -- was NT$15,000. With Taiwan roads claiming around 20 lives a day, Mother Ko discovered that thousands of people were being devastated every year, not just emotionally, but financially.
In the days following the accident Mother Ko stayed home and cried; she couldn’t eat, and lost nine kilos in a week. Crazed by grief, she even fantasized about wreaking revenge. Then, one night in a dream, she saw Jong-yeu. Forget revenge, he told her. “You should use the law to take care of victims’ families.”
Mother Ko did so, first seeking justice in her son’s case. A judge eventually decided the truck driver was responsible, and should pay over NT$1 million compensation. It proved a hollow victory, as he had no property to his name.
Growing up on a farm, in rural Tainan County, Mother Ko was especially close to her hard-working, selfless father. He was her role model, though young Mother Ko didn’t always agree with him. Harvesting sweet potatoes, he’d give the best away to neighbours – no matter that Mother Ko told him, “I like to eat those.”
His unselfishness had stayed with her. If she couldn’t get compensation for herself, she decided, she would try and get it for others.
Mother Ko wrote to President Lee Teng-hui and a number of government units, seeking new laws to help road victims’ families: in each case they should receive over NT$1 million, she said, instead of being handed a paltry NT$15,000 from insurance companies if families could prove victims were blameless. The president’s office passed her correspondence to the Ministry of Transportation, which told her only that a law on mandatory liability insurance to help road victims “was underway”.
Mother Ko decided that she would have to shame legislators to taking action. For that she needed publicity to draw attention to her cause. With a group of students who had been moved by her story and wanted to help, she picketed the truck-company office, shouting demands through a megaphone at the closed doors. It worked: local media covered her story. A few days later, she won still more attention when she traveled to Taipei, where she handed journalists a summary of her campaign for new laws on mandatory liability insurance and urging people who had suffered similar injustices to contact her.
Letters began arriving and her phone started ringing. Mother Ko listened as people recounted harrowing stories. She visited many of them, cried with them and comforted them.
Mother Ko and some 20 road victims’ relatives gathered on the Tunghai University campus to discuss how to achieve their goals. “Form a foundation,” suggested John Huang, a lawyer who wanted to help. “And you should establish your headquarters in Taipei. There are more resources there.”
And so Mother Ko became a frequent visitor to Taipei. She and her small team of volunteers registered the Association for Traffic Accident Victims. They rented a small office and when Mother Ko needed to stay overnight in Taipei, she slept on the office floor.
Mother Ko stepped up the pressure on legislators. She began demonstrating outside the Finance and Transportation ministries responsible for drafting compulsory liability insurance laws. “One life isn’t worth three pigs!” she chanted , (pigs cost around NT$5,000 each).
One who joined Mother Ko’s association and marched with her was Lai Mei-yu, a housewife who had lost the second of her three sons when a truck collided with his motorbike. “If you can stand up, I can too,” Lai told her. With encouragement from Mother Ko, Lai pursued the case through the courts, eventually winning NT$750,000 from the truck company.
There were many similar stories. One woman whose son died in a traffic accident had incurred NT$300,000 in medical expenses. Housewife Li Pao-lien turned to Mother Ko a few days after her only son was killed in an accident with a truck. Mother Ko taught her how to gather evidence for her case against the truck company. Li eventually won a NT$1.2-million payout and became one of the association’s most active volunteers. By then Mother Ko had become a minor celebrity. Early in 1991 at the Ministry of Finance, on the fringe of Taipei city, she sat at the front of the gate, blocking the automobiles with her own body. Minister Wang Chien-shien asked his secretary why there was a commotion outside. “There’s a lady sitting in front of the automobiles,” she told him.
Wang went out and spoke to Mother Ko, who explained that the compensation bill was taking too long to draft. Wang said the bill had just been drafted and would be submitted to to the Legislative Yuan within one week.
But soon the bill was stalled again. Two powerful interest groups were impeding progress – the insurance and transport industries. There were arguments over whether the insurance should be handled by companies or the government, or whether the proposed law was the right way to proceed.
Exasperated, Mother Ko turned up the pressure again. She hired a marching band and, clutching a megaphone, led a group of road victims’ relatives to the Legislative Yuan. Twice she went on hunger strike. The first time, she didn’t eat or drink for three days but no one seemed to notice. So she went on a hunger strike that lasted ten days. During it, a legislator swore at her, saying, “Let her die.”
Undeterred, Mother Ko continued. By 1996 she established a routine of demonstrating outside the Legislative Yuan when it met on Tuesdays and Fridays, and outside the Kuomingtang (KMT) headquarters when the standing committee met each Wednesday.
She wanted to get President Lee’s attention. But whenever he was due to leave KMT headquarters, guards came out and took down Mother Ko’s banners. She wondered if he would ever learn about her campaign – until that chill November day in Taipei.
The official at Kuomingtang headquarters led Mother Ko upstairs to an imposing room. Inside a man was waiting to greet her. It was President Lee.
Stunned, but undaunted, Mother Ko launched into her story – the pain of losing her son, the suffering of road victims’ families, the people who had no livelihood after losing their relatives in traffic accidents, her association, her struggle to get the compensation law passed.
“I also had a son die young,” the President said. “I can feel the same heartache. Why aren’t legislators promoting this law?” Mother Ko explained that the insurance and transport industries as well as many legislators were creating obstacles.
Lee turned to a legislator beside him and said, “This is a good law; we’ll do our best to legislate.”
Afterwards, Mother Ko heard a reporter say: “At last, she smiles!”
Mother Ko held only a couple more demonstrations outside KMT headquarters before learning that the Legislative Yuan had scheduled a day for a final debate on the Compulsory Automobile Liability Insurance Law.
On Dec 13, 1996, Mother Ko dressed in red for luck and joined a handful of volunteers including Lai and Li in a canteen in the Legislative Yuan where they could watch the debate on TV. A legislator spoke at length, pointing out apparent problems. Too anxious to sit, Mother Ko stood and watched.
Finally, the Legislative Yuan chairman banged a gavel three times to signal the bill’s acceptance. Mother Ko and the volunteers hugged each other and yelled in delight
Returning home to Tainan, Mother Ko had a celebratory dinner with her husband Ko Tian-yeun, as well as their son and daughter. Association members phoned to congratulate her, with some quoting a Chinese saying: “After the bitterness, the sweetness comes.”
Silently, Mother Ko spoke to Chung-yu, “What you asked for, I have achieved. Now you can rest in peace.”
By the end of 2002, more than NT$56.1 billion dollars had been paid out for road accidents in which people were injured, handicapped or killed. The insurance covers medical expenses for the injured, and NT$1.4 million in each case is paid to families of the dead.
Mother Ko - in Chinese (pdf)