As Taiwan gears up to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident with a series of exhibitions, music festivals and marches, local human rights activists and academics say much more needs to be done before the nation can truly come to terms with its past.

When World War II ended in 1945 and the Japanese surrendered, the Kuomintang (KMT), fleeing China, took over governance of the island nation. Governor Chen Yi (陳儀) quickly assumed control over NT$11 billion (then worth about US$5.5 billion) of Japanese assets and monopolized trade on tea, paper, mining and other vital goods.

While some Taiwanese initially welcomed the troops from China, the undisciplined KMT soldiers looted and stole from the locals, who soon became disillusioned with the KMT government. The total economic control held by the government led to high inflation, corruption, unemployment and starvation.

On Feb. 27, 1947, riots began after a widow selling contraband cigarettes was pistol-whipped by a Tobacco Monopoly Bureau officer and a bystander was shot dead. An uprising quickly spread throughout much of the country, and the brutal crackdown by the KMT police and military which followed came to be known as the 228 Incident or 228 Massacre marking the start of the White Terror and sparking 38 years of martial law in Taiwan.

By March 1, 1947, Taiwanese had managed to gain control of much of the island, assembling a Settlement Committee and presenting the KMT government with a list of 32 Demands for Reform, which included requests for local autonomy and free elections.

More KMT troops deployed by General Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) arrived from China on March 8, 1947 to suppress the locals. They landed in Keelung, northern Taiwan, and began massacring and shooting people in the streets, looting homes and raping women, according to a New York Times report from that time.

An estimated 28,000 people were killed during the 228 Massacre. Many educated Taiwanese elite who had spoken up against the KMT were abducted and never heard from again.

For more than 40 years, the ruling KMT suppressed any discussion of the incident, and anyone who dared to speak of it risked being imprisoned.

It was not until 1995 that Taiwan’s first democratically-elected president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) — himself allegedly almost shot during the 228 Incident — issued a formal apology to the victims and their descendants and designated Feb. 28 as Peace Memorial Day to commemorate the incident. He also commissioned a government-financed report that found Chiang Kai-shek responsible for the massacres, but which never led to an official statement of accountability.

Since then, Taiwan has established several memorial parks and museums dedicated to the commemoration of the incident. The 228 Incident Memorial Foundation meanwhile, has provided over NT$7.2 billion (about US$233 million) in compensations to the families of the victims of 228.

This year’s commemorative events have drawn even more attention as it is the first since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), whose campaign platform included transitional justice, took office. The Tsai administration also set up an Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee to investigate KMT assets accumulated during its authoritarian rule, led by Wellington Koo (顧立雄). Koo previously served as a pro bono lawyer for the victims’ families when they filed a suit for compensation from the KMT.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has also said it would commemorate the incident this year, claiming the 228 Incident was part of the “Chinese people’s fight for liberation,” and accusing Taiwanese independence groups of manipulating the incident to “tear apart Taiwanese society.”

228 Incident Memorial Foundation Chairman Hsueh Hua-yuan (薛化元) criticized the Taiwan Affairs Office by saying, “The 228 Incident marks the Taiwanese struggle for autonomy and resistance to an oppressive regime, and the Chinese government should develop freedom and democracy before trying to commemorate it,” Taipei Times reports.

However, the issue of accountability has yet to be taken up. On Feb. 17, Taiwan 228 Incident Care Association Director-General Pan Hsin-hsing (潘信行) asked for the government to recognize a 2007 report by the 228 Incident Memorial Foundation, which also assigns responsibility for the incident to Chiang Kai-shek.

Activists continue to campaign for the removal of Chiang’s statue from the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, along with changing the school curriculum related to the incident.

“All the evidence points to Chiang being responsible for the incident, so he should have to pay a price,” Pan told the Taipei Times.

This year, President Tsai, Premier Lin Chuan (林全) and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) will attend a memorial ceremony at the 228 Peace Memorial Park in Taipei on Feb. 28, where the president will hand out “reputation rehabilitation certificates” to some of the victims’ families.

Other commemoration activities include a historical tour of Taipei’s Dadaocheng (大稻埕) area — the site of the initial incident; as well as memorial activities in Los Angeles and seminars co-sponsored by the 228 Incident Memorial Foundation in South Korea and Japan. The Kaohsiung Museum of History is also holding a special exhibit showcasing declassified documents from the U.S. detailing the civil unrest before the 228 Incident, along with newspaper clippings from Australian and Russian press on the incident. A memorial ceremony will also be held in Changhua County, central Taiwan, that includes a music festival and prayer session, while the Changhua County government is also looking for a suitable site to establish a 228 Memorial Park.

Editor: Edward White