Remembering Green Island’s First Political Prisoners

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Today marks 66 years since the first group of political prisoners were taken to Taiwan’s Green Island.

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On May 17, 1951, more than one thousand political prisoners set sail from Keelung Harbor, northern Taiwan, unaware where they were heading. After two days at sea, they arrived at the “New Life Correction Center” on Green Island, off the eastern coast of Taiwan. There, the prisoners began their 15-year long “ideological transformation” process.

Green Island, once known as the Isle of Fire, is well-known today for water-sports, diving and snorkeling, as well as its Sika deer population, introduced to the island in the 1970s.

But the island has served as the location for various prisons throughout its history. For 36 years, the island served as a “corrections facility,” housing up to 20,000 political prisoners, most of them intellectuals and students accused of being Communist spies or criticizing the Kuomintang (KMT) government.

The prisoners were held under poor conditions and routinely tortured.

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Photo Credit:陳欽生提供
Prison island

The Japanese built the first prison on Green Island when they colonized Taiwan, called the Isle of Fire Homeless Shelter. The “shelter,” which operated from 1911 to 1919, was used to detain homeless people that the Japanese rounded-up around Taiwan.

When Taiwan’s martial law era — also known as the White Terror — began, following the 228 Massacre on Feb. 28, 1947, Green Island became the location for the New Life Correction Center. It was in operation for 15 years from 1951 to 1965.

At the center, prisoners were split into three brigades, which were then divided into four squadrons, with 120 to 160 prisoners to a squadron. The Eighth Squadron held up to 100 female prisoners from 1951-1954. There was also a “13th Squadron”, referring to prisoners who died on the island and whose bodies were never collected by their families - many family members feared retribution.

Prisoners were instructed to build their own housing out of coral limestone and timber they cut from the surrounding mountains. They also built the wall that would keep them in the prison, commonly known as the “Great Wall of Green Island,” the remains of which can still be seen today.

The facility also had a medical center, where prisoners with medical training could treat prisoners and Green Island’s wider population alike.

In July 1953, several prisoners staged a rebellion in the New Life Correction Center. Following the uprising, 14 prisoners were executed and the Ministry of National Defense began transferring “ideologically incorrect” prisoners who failed a test at the end of their sentences to Liuqiu Island, off Taiwan’s south-west coast, for further penal servitude.

At its peak, the facility once held up to 2,000 political prisoners. Combined with the military management personnel at the facility, the population of the prison numbered 3,000 — almost equal to the civilian population of Green Island.

When the Taiyuan Prison in Taitung County was completed in 1965, the remaining political prisoners on Green Island with life sentences were transferred to the new facility.

An attempted prison revolt — known as the Taiyuan Incident — by Taiwanese independence advocates took place in February 1970. It involved prison guards, inmates and some young indigenous people who tried to take over the Taiyuan Prison, a nearby radio station and Navy ships. It prompted the Ministry of National Defense to build a new prison next to the New Life Correction Center.

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Photo Credit: Anav Rin @Flickr CC BY 2.0
Life at the Oasis Villa

The new facility, called the Probation Training Prison, was completed in 1972, and eventually came to be known by the moniker “Green Island Oasis Villa.” It was in operation until the end of the White Terror in 1987. Taiwanese author Bo Yang (柏楊), who wrote “The Ugly Chinaman,” was one of the many notable figures imprisoned at the Oasis Villa.

Both the New Life Correction Center and the Oasis Villa were run as concentration camps. Prisoners were forced into manual labor, fishing, tending to crops and livestock. The inmates had to go through daily lectures on Sun Yat Sen’s (孫中山) Three Principles of the People. Prisoners were also forced to “voluntarily” tattoo anti-Communist slogans onto their bodies after the Korean War ended in 1953.

Former inmates tell of torture from their prison guards. Kuo Chen-chun (郭振純) was one of the earliest people to advocate Taiwanese independence, and was sentenced to a 22-year sentence.

During questioning at the prison, Kuo was asked by a guard about a famous Szechuan dish called “ants on the tree (螞蟻上樹).” When he said he had never had the dish, the guard ordered Kuo stripped, tied up, then had sugar water poured all over him and left him out on the prison compound.

“When the ants came, I could only roll around or try to squat, it is really hard to remove ants once they climb onto your body,” Kuo recalls in an interview for a book.

Kuo Chia-yu (郭家瑜) was four when his father was imprisoned. He lived with his parents at the Oasis Villa. When he was released to attend elementary school his classmates called him “little communist spy” and beat him up, Kuo recalled at a press conference for the opening of the 2017 Green Island Human Rights Arts Festival.

白色恐怖
Relatives of victims of "White Terror" hold lilies as they walk past a pond full of lilies during a memorial to mark the 22nd anniversary of the end of martial law, in Taipei July 15, 2009. The "White Terror" period began soon after the 228 Incident in 1947, during which a military crackdown took place against dissidents protesting against the administration of Chen Yi, a governor appointed by Chiang-Kai-shek to help rebuild Taiwan after World War II, according to local media. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang
Remembering Green Island and the White Terror

Today, the old prison compounds on Green Island have been converted into a human rights park. It is a popular attraction for many of Green Island’s 300,000 annual tourists. The museum has wax figures of inmates performing their daily tasks and listening to lectures.

The Green Island Human Rights Monument was completed on Dec. 10, 1999, and Former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) apologized to the victims of the White Terror at the inaugural ceremony of the monument.

The surviving former inmates have taken parts in various efforts to document the atrocities committed during this period, recording oral histories and taking part in documentary productions.

The Ministry of Culture’s National Human Rights Museum Preparatory Office holds an arts festival on May 17 to honor the victims of the White Terror and those who were incarcerated on Green Island.

This year, the arts festival includes a play, wood carvings depicting life at the prison camp made by Chen Wu-chen (陳武鎮), another former inmate, as well as other historical items from the Oasis Villa. The Preparatory Office has also organized an exhibit about Green Island’s history as a concentration camp at Terminal 2 of the Taoyuan International Airport.

Read more:
BOOK REVIEW: 'Green Island,' by Shawna Yang Ryan


Editor: Edward White

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