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Thousands protest outside Taiwan Presidential Office over pension reform plan

By Faith Hung

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Thousands of military personnel, teachers, police and civil servants protested a plan to reform Taiwan's pension system outside of the Presidential Office in Taipei on Sunday, as a national conference to discuss reform was held in the Office.

Vice President Chen Chien-jen announced a pension reform plan this week for teachers, civil servants and non-government employees which would delay a default in payments to retirees by a decade.

The plan has angered the island's public servants, many of whom say it would ruin their retirement plans and that it demonstrates incompetence by President Tsai Ing-wen.

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"Tsai Ing-wen step down," shouted the protesters, barricaded from the Presidential Office by rows of wired fences and barriers.

"We protest the Tsai government," the protesters chanted, calling the reform plan "government bullying" and "majority tyranny."

Police said about 12,000 people are estimated to have taken part in the demonstration.

"This plan is so shocking to all of us. The government is having financial problems. Everyone should be willing to share the burden, not just us," said Tseng Kwang-ming, 70, a retired teacher, adding the plan would cut his monthly pension by almost half from T$60,000 ($1,900) currently.

Pension reform is critical for Taiwan as large payouts are no longer sustainable for the export-reliant economy, with contributions crimped by slower economic growth and a rapidly aging population.

A successful reform will be crucial for President Tsai, whose popularity has hit an all-time low since taking office last May. She has said reforms are "urgent" given limited national and social resources, and that she wants pension reform bills passed by the legislature this spring.

"The point is to ensure that Taiwan's pension system will remain a solvent system which the government can afford while also ensuring that retirees can get their pensions," said Tsai, in opening remarks at the conference, where government officials are discussing the plan with public servant representatives.

Pensions for civil servants could default by 2030, teachers by 2031, and other workers by 2048, government data shows, if Taiwan's pension system is not reformed after years of under-funded liabilities.

Reform plans for military pensions, which could default as early as 2020, will be discussed after the Lunar New Year holiday.

Under-funded liabilities of public and labor sector pensions were expected to hit a record T$18 trillion in 2016, nine times the government's annual budget expenditure, and a big leap from T$12 trillion a decade ago.

(Reporting by Faith Hung; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)