What you need to know
An international expert believes much more is to be uncovered about Taiwan’s past.
Taiwan is approaching one year of transitional justice under the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). But the program to investigate historical grievances has been slower than expected.
“For the new democratic system to move forward, we must first find a way to face the past together,” Tsai declared during her inauguration address in May of last year. She went on to pledge new investigations into historical wrongs to be followed by a transitional justice program based on the findings. “From here on out, history will no longer divide Taiwan. Instead, it will propel Taiwan forward,” she said at the time.
The initial legislative push to officially investigate historical wrongdoing stalled. For the past 10 months, President Tsai’s program of transitional justice has turned into a contentious fight over the legitimacy of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party’s financial assets. The KMT is believed to have accrued much of its vast wealth through state influence during Taiwan’s extended period of one-party rule. Now the government is painstakingly reviewing the origin of the KMT’s many holdings and affiliate organizations with an eye toward erasing its long-held material dominance.
However, after nearly 12 months of legal battles and street protests on the assets issue, the Tsai administration seems to be returning to some of their earlier transitional justice promises. Last month, President Tsai used the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident to announce the declassification of all documents related to the 1947 crackdown along with a three-year investigation into both the incident itself and the decades-long White Terror era that followed. That same week, the Ministry of Culture also raised the possibility of changing the name of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and removing Chiang’s (蔣介石) statue. Meanwhile, efforts to address the historical grievances of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have begun to move forward as well.
As the Tsai administration continues to slug out the assets issue with the KMT, it is now starting to look at fresh historical inquiries and grievances. The News Lens spoke with Professor Ernest Caldwell, who lectures in Chinese Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, to reflect on the first phase of Tsai’s transitional justice program and discuss what may be ahead.
Caldwell argues that despite the challenges President Tsai has faced so far, the project still has an important role to play in Taiwan.
“Having a society that can know fairly precisely what had happened or at least read the materials and draw their own conclusions with the fullest possible amount of source material I think is very important because that allows people in many ways to situate themselves within society,” he says. “What themselves, their families, their friends neighbors, what happened to them, having that doubt and those questions answered I think is very important and I think allows people to sort of mentally reintegrate into a more unified society in a way where everybody knows where they stand vis-a-vis the historical past of the Martial Law period in Taiwan.”
Caldwell studies human rights across Asia, including Taiwan’s own transitional justice experience, and he points out that until last year’s presidential and legislative election — which launched Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into control of both the presidency and the legislature — prior attempts at transitional justice had been performed with the KMT controlling at least one major branch of government. This is the first chance for the DPP to carry out such a program on its own terms. “I think for a lot of people in a way the truth is still out there, and a lot of people are hoping that Taiwan can increase the awareness and the transparency of actually what happened during that time period,” he says.
Caldwell believes the recently announced release of White Terror era documents and a planned historical inquiry hold special significance, as a lack of access to official records has long stymied attempts to make a full accounting of historical abuses. Without these documents, victims and their families are left with few official sources and instead must rely on anecdotal evidence, which in many cases has made it difficult to seek formal redress.
Also new, Caldwell says the broadening of the inquiry to include White Terror era documents is an important departure from past government-sponsored historical investigations, which have focused more narrowly on the 228 Incident itself. “Many of those documents were sealed as state secret documents, and so that period has never had a really formal treatment,” he says.
Taking account of party assets
In August 2016, the new DPP administration established the Ill-Gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee with a mandate to review and redistribute assets obtained by political parties since the handover of Taiwan to the Republic of China in 1945.
By September, it had frozen the KMT’s main bank account at Bank SinoPac, crippling the party’s operations and forcing it to lay off more than half of its staff at central and local offices. Since then, the committee has launched investigations into other asset holdings, as well as organizations suspected of holding at some time an affiliation with the KMT, such as the China Youth Corps and The National Women’s League.
The moves sparked outrage among both the party elite and those who depend on the KMT for their livelihood. “Everyone knew that the bill was directed toward the KMT, toward the KMT’s affiliate holdings, and that’s exactly what the committee has gone after,” says Caldwell. “But they seem to have gone after them very hastily in some aspects, and rather heavy-handedly.”
Taiwan’s courts have sided with the KMT in a series of rulings that halted orders to freeze assets, although a ruling early this month sided with the committee to maintain a freeze on NT$740 million (US$2.4 million) held by the KMT.
KMT leaders have argued the party assets review should be left to the judiciary, and that the committee’s approach of freezing assets before any review takes place is unconstitutional.
“I think that in some ways their arguments are warranted because the committee does have a very quick snap judgment sort of style of power to freeze assets, which is very problematic,” says Caldwell. “And so they freeze the assets and then can start to review them, and this causes numerous problems.”
However, the committee is under a great deal of pressure to move the process forward quickly, he adds. “What the DPP is worried about is just a rapid liquidation of any type of finances, lands, et cetera, making the task of sorting through the KMT assets even more difficult as time goes on.” Suspicions assets were being liquidated triggered the initial asset freezes back in September.
“I think that at this point the best thing they (the committee) can do is to keep going forward and being as careful as they can with tracing the lineage of all these assets that they have now frozen or have been attempting to freeze,” he says.
Is Tsai keeping her promise on transitional justice in Taiwan?
On Aug. 1, 2016, President Tsai issued a formal apology on behalf of the government to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples for abuses suffered over the past 400 years. During the historic ceremony, Tsai also pledged to work to grant more autonomy for indigenous groups, to strengthen land rights, and increase efforts at language preservation.
However, many felt that despite the apology, indigenous issues have taken a back seat in the project of transitional justice. Caldwell agrees that in the ongoing discussion, “aboriginal voices are quite often being lost.”
There is contention over the length of time covered by the transitional justice program. Caldwell points out that for Taiwan’s indigenous people, grievances stretch back beyond the KMT’s arrival, to the Japanese colonial era, and in many cases to the arrival of ethnic Han settlers.
“Very little is typically mentioned about the Japanese period,” he says. “And while many ethnically Han Chinese did suffer under the Japanese, the aboriginal groups suffered much, much more, both in terms of loss of land and specific abuses against them."
The government recently introduced new rules that would address at least the issue of land rights. In February, the Council of Indigenous Peoples announced draft regulations that would formalize boundaries for indigenous land and villages aimed at returning 800,000 hectares of territory traditionally claimed by indigenous groups. However, the rules met with immediate criticism and subsequent protest for not going far enough.
Protesters from a number of indigenous rights groups have rallied on Ketagalan Boulevard, near the Presidential Office, for weeks to protest the plan, which they say should include traditional lands now held by private organizations. Currently, it only includes publicly held lands.
The dispute remains unresolved, but if the strong emotions unleashed in this case are any indication of what is to come, the Tsai administration has a difficult road to walk to win back the trust of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.
Caldwell says that neglecting indigenous issues will pose a real challenge for the broader campaign of transitional justice. “The one problem with transitional justice is that it can be a very strong dividing force in a society,” he says. “Especially if the society still contains members of the former oppressive regime. But in Taiwan you have that, you also have the Taiwanese versus Mainlander versus aboriginal groups, so it's a much more diverse multicultural society each with specific claims to transitional justice needs, and at the moment those aboriginal voices have been much less prominent both in political discourse and within the legislature.”
Even with all those criticisms and challenges in mind, it is important to remember that President Tsai’s push for transitional justice is still less than a year old and remains in its early stages. Caldwell expects it to carry on for some time as it has in other societies such as post-Nazi Germany and post-apartheid South Africa.
“Taiwan so far has definitely done a great deal in an extremely short period of time,” he says. “It’s supposed to be a bit messy because it’s a very messy topic that is prone to high levels of emotion on both sides of the issue.”
“Dredging up the horrors of the past is never without the potential for renewed conflict and tension,” he adds. “But how the government manages that tension and utilizes the found truth for positive reconciliation is of utmost importance.”
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Editor: Edward White