Taiwan Grapples with Divisive History as New President Prepares to Take Power - Latest Global News

Taiwan Grapples with Divisive History as New President Prepares to Take Power

Taipei, Taiwan – Even as Taiwan prepares for the inauguration of its eighth president next week, it continues to fight over the legacy of the island’s first president, Chiang Kai-shek.

For some, Chiang was the “generalissimo” who liberated the Taiwanese from the Japanese colonizers. For many others, he was the oppressor in chief, declaring martial law and ushering in the period of White Terror that would last until 1992.

For decades, these dueling narratives have divided Taiwan’s society, and a recent push for transitional justice appears to have only deepened the fault lines. Now the split is raising concerns about whether it could harm Taiwan’s ability to mount a unified defense against China, which is becoming increasingly assertive in its claim to the self-governing island.

“When push comes to shove, there is concern about whether civilians will work well with the military to defend Taiwan,” said historian Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang of the University of Missouri in the United States.

On February 28, 1947, newly arrived Kuomintang (KMT) troops from Chiang crushed an uprising by Taiwanese natives, killing up to 28,000 people in what became known as the February 28 Incident. Thousands more died in the four-decade era of martial law that followed.

This traumatic history found its official reckoning in 2018, when the Taiwanese government established its Transitional Justice Commission, modeled on truth and reconciliation initiatives in Africa, Latin America, and North America, to redress historic human rights violations and other atrocities.

People attend the commemoration of the February 28 incident in Taipei [Violet Law/Al Jazeera]

But when the commission ended in May 2022, advocates and observers said they saw little truth and little reconciliation.

Almost from the commission’s first days, the distribution of transitional justice has been politicized across the blue-green demarcation that has long defined Taiwan’s sociopolitical landscape, with blue representing KMT supporters and green representing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

A recently published anthology, “Ethics of Historical Memory: From Transitional Justice to Overcoming the Past,” explains how the way Taiwanese remember the past influences their attitudes toward transitional justice. And since this memory depends on which camp they support, everyone represents their own version of Taiwanese history.

“This is why transitional justice seems to be so stagnant at the moment,” said Jimmy Chia-Shin Hsu, a research professor at the legal research institute Academia Sinica, who contributed to and edited the book. “Whatever truth it brings to light would remain stuck in the blue-green narrative.”

A bipartisan view, Hsu said, is to credit the DPP with codifying transitional justice and for Lee Teng-hui, the first democratically elected KMT president, to break the taboo on raising the Feb. 28 incident.

The past shapes the future

In February, Betty Wei attended the commemoration of the February 28 incident for the first time and listened carefully to the survivors’ oral histories. Wei, 30, said she wanted to know more about what happened because her school textbook covered what many call a turning point in a few cryptic lines and many of her contemporaries showed little interest.

“In recent years, the voices advocating for transitional justice have become weaker,” Wei told Al Jazeera. “Many people of my generation think that previous generations have to pay the bills.”

Statues of former Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek are lined up in a park.  Two of the statues in front show him sitting.  They are painted red.  Some are behind it.  They are white or bronze colored.
The Transitional Justice Committee recommended moving the Chiang Kai-shek statues from public areas, but many remain [File: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA]

In Taiwan, the past is never the past, but rather serves as a breeding ground for new struggles.

As the DPP prepares for an unprecedented third consecutive term in office, the unfinished task of removing the island’s remaining Chiang statues has emerged as the latest front in what Yang, the historian, described to Al Jazeera as “this memory war”.

More than half of the original 1,500 monuments have been demolished in the last two years, and the remaining statues were mostly located on military sites.

Yang argues that’s because the top brass rose under martial law and many still see Chiang as their leader, all things considered. For them, toppling the statues would be an attack on their history.

The statues embody “the historical legacy that the military wants to keep alive,” Yang said. “This is a source of tension between the military and the DPP government.”

On the eve of William Lai Ching-te being sworn in as the island’s next president, Taiwanese will mark White Terror Memorial Day for the first time on May 19, the day martial law was declared in 1949.

While it is clear that Taiwanese have promised never to forget, who and how they can forgive has become far less clear.

As a former chairman of the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation, the first NGO to champion the cause, Cheng-Yi Huang praised the government’s move to take over the KMT’s private archives in recent years but lamented that too little follow-up the truth had been sought far.

For example, Huang said that because of the Incident Disposition and Compensation Act of Feb. 28, many chose to remain silent about their complicity because only victims received compensation.

However, due to Taiwan’s turbulent history, the line between victim and perpetrator is rarely clear.

Chiang Kai-shek in 1955. He wears a military uniform with a long cape.  Others in uniform walk behind him.  They leave a temple.
Chiang Kai-shek (center) in 1955. Known as the “Generalissimo,” he led a brutal military dictatorship that only ended in 1992 [Fred Waters/AP Photo]

By searching military archives, Yang has shed light on how Chinese people were kidnapped and conscripted into service by the KMT in the final years of the Chinese Civil War. Those who tried to escape were tortured and even murdered. And the native Taiwanese who resisted the KMT’s oppression were persecuted as communists.

“Under martial law, the military was considered an arm of the dictatorship, but it was also a victim of the dictator’s regime,” Yang told Al Jazeera. “The transitional justice movement has missed the opportunity to reconcile Taiwanese society with the military.”

For Hsu, Beijing’s belligerence requires that Taiwanese of all stripes find common cause.

“Faced with the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party, it is imperative that we come together to shape a shared future,” Hsu said at a standing-room-only book talk during the Taipei International Book Exhibition in late February.

“And how we remember our past will shape our future.”

Sharing Is Caring:

Leave a Comment