Thu, Nov 09, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Secrecy, not embezzling, is the issue of the hour

By Jerome Keating

It goes without saying that the past few months have been an ordeal for President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), during which time he has been under siege -- both figuratively and literally -- for crimes not of his own commission, but for crimes attributed to those surrounding him.

The most recent bombshell was the indictment of first lady Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍) for embezzlement, forgery and perjury.

The most damaging indictment against Wu was that for embezzling NT$15 million (US$455,500).

It is true that the amount Wu is alleged to have embezzled is trivial in comparison to past amounts that others have taken from the country's assets.

True, it is trivial in comparison to fortunes amassed by others in exploiting past privileged positions in a one-party state where paper trails were destroyed and prosecution basically forbidden.

Nevertheless, embezzlement is still embezzlement, and Wu should be punished if she is found guilty.

Which is why, at 8pm on Sunday, Chen came out and addressed the nation and laid his cards on the table.

If the verdict in Wu's case is guilty, he would not take advantage of his right to appeal, but would step down, he said.

In his own defense, Chen said that over the past six years, of his own volition, he cut his salary in half.

The amount thus lost to him was double the petty amount his wife is accused of embezzling.

If he had sought the office of president for the money, he said, he would not have given half his salary up in the first place.

The real issue here, however, is much more than the small amount the first lady is accused of embezzling.

The real issue is a deeper matter: that of the special funds that the nation's chief executive can flexibly spend in the interests of the country, and which secret expenses require invoices and which do not.

The confusion over the special funds is clear in the accounting practices used to examine presidential spending, with expenses that were allowed and unchallenged in 2002 that are now being challenged as illegal.

A further issue is that of secrecy. In the past, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was criticized because he stated that during the 1996 missile crisis, he knew that the missiles were duds lacking warheads.

By stating this, he exposed the fact that Taiwan had spies and moles within the People's Republic of China who provided the information.

These people were subsequently executed.

Now Taiwan's prosecutors are pressing Chen for information on those who can verify certain expenditures, some of whom are undoubtedly working in China.

No, there is much more at stake for Taiwan's developing democracy than the trivial amount Wu is alleged to have embezzled -- what is really at stake is the manner in which the nation has been forced to operate in the international arena.

As Taiwan and the world watch for the result of the first lady's embezzlement trial, let us hope that all have the ability to see the wider context surrounding it and the issues involved before they rush to judgment.

This matter is far from over.

Jerome Keating is a Taiwan-based writer.

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