A Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Taiwan: Is It Necessary?

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Taiwan: Is It Necessary?
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have to make explicit how the government of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo was colonial, in that it was rule by outsiders in the interests of outsiders.

In the middle of her inaugural address on May 20, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced that she would “establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission inside the Presidential Office,” which would “address the historical past” with the “goal of transitional justice … to pursue true social reconciliation.” With these abstract words, President Tsai has raised some very important — and potentially explosive — issues for her first term in government.

What is transitional justice? What does a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” do? Transitional justice is a set of measures implemented by different countries to redress legacies of massive human rights abuses. According to transitional justice theory, victims have well-established rights to see the perpetrators punished, to know the truth and to receive reparations. Failing to address massive human rights abuses will likely be socially divisive, generate mistrust between groups and government, and can lead to doubts about a commitment to the rule of law.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one technique used to achieve transitional justice. In perhaps the most famous case, South Africa, those who had committed human rights abuses under the Apartheid regime were invited to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where they could admit their guilt. If they were willing to admit their errors and if they expressed true regret for their actions, their punishments could be reduced.

Several countries have established Truth and Reconciliation commissions including Chile — the first to use the title “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” — Guatemala, Mauritius, East Timor, Peru, Morocco, El Salvador, Congo, Kenya, and Nepal. In such countries as South Africa and Chile, the commissions worked well. In other places they proved less successful.

Despite massive human rights abuses under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), Taiwan has never before had an official process of transitional justice nor has it had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The private Chen Wen-chen Foundation, established to commemorate the life of professor Chen Wen-chen (陳文成), whom security agencies killed on July 2, 1981, tried to establish a private Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but this attempt lacked the power of the state to force criminals to testify and it also lacked sufficient resources to conduct any major investigation.

In view of Taiwan’s quite peaceful transition to democracy, one can ask whether it actually has needed transitional justice. I would argue that in the past Taiwan most definitely should have established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For example, because the Chiang Ching-kuo regime killed Henry Liu (劉宜良), an American citizen, in the U.S., on Oct. 14, 1984, the American Federal Bureau of Investigation had wiretaps proving who was involved in the murder conspiracy. Thus, General Wang Hsi-ling (汪希苓), a leading person in military intelligence, was clearly guilty of a key role in the murder.

But was General Wang truly punished? He was “imprisoned” at the Jingmei Military Prison, but his quarters were very different from those of normal political prisoners such as those convicted after the Kaohsiung Incident. General Wang lived in a nice house rather than in a prison cell shared with a dozen prisoners. And he had a special small house to receive female visitors. (If one goes in the main gate of the Jingmei Prison and then turns right, one can see the house in which Wang lived.)

But Wang never demonstrated any remorse for his involvement in the killing of Henry Liu or his many other crimes. Instead, he was released from his “prison” soon after Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) became president. Then, he was honored when he turned 80 years old, and many of those honoring him were likewise guilty of human rights abuses.

Similarly, the murderers who killed Lin I-hsiung’s (林義雄) mother and twin daughters on Feb. 28, 1980, and those who killed Chen Wen-chen have never been caught. Their murders remain unsolved.

In the meantime, the former criminals have been well treated by the current democratic system in Taiwan. They have excellent pensions and enjoy life to the fullest. Never have they ever had to apologize or express regret for their crimes.

In terms of redressing criminal activity, President Tsai’s coming to office is probably too late as most of the criminals have either already died or are extremely old. Nevertheless, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission could explore the reasons for the criminal behavior of the Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo governments.

In doing this, the Commission would have to make explicit how the government of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo was colonial, in that it was rule by outsiders in the interests of the outsiders. The Mainlander government of the two Chiangs systematically discriminated against Taiwanese. Perhaps at least this understanding will become clear in the new textbooks that will hopefully result from Taiwan’s new Truth and Reconciliation Commission.