Today marks the 20th anniversary of the lifting of martial law in Taiwan. While July 15th is not a national holiday, a series of activities are being held this year to commemorate this invaluable democratic milestone.
Twenty long years have come and gone since then, yet most people still vividly recall what living under martial law was like.
In fact, it's no surprise that the memory of martial law is so fresh in the public mind. The first generation born after the lifting of martial law is only about to reach voting age. In other words, most people who are registered voters today were born during the martial law era.
With the public spotlight on the end of the martial law era, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) finds itself in an awkward position, being the sole political party responsible for subjecting Taiwan to 38 years of martial law that brought the violence of the White Terror and other tragedies.
The KMT's quandry lies partly in the fact that the victims of the dictatorship are still around to recount their stories. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of the party's heavyweights today also played important party roles during the latter part of the martial law era. They were part of and upheld an oppressive system. They were silent on the issue of oppression then, but present themselves as champions of democracy now.
A perfect example is KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (
But the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may not be in a position to boast either. Although it deserves praise for the actions of its members at crucial points in the past -- the Kaohsiung Incident and the struggle for democracy, for example -- the DPP should not, twenty years after martial law has ended, still be relying on Taiwan's collective memory of dark and painful days to win votes.
The DPP should be concerned that it's biggest contribution continues to be achievements from two decades ago. During the seven years of its administration, the DPP has made little progress in switching from an opposition party mentality to that of a governing party. Unfortunately, the DPP has far fewer laurels to show for its time in the presidential office than it gathered on the road to democracy.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," as US philosopher George Santayana said. The importance of past mistakes lies in the lessons they offer. The public will not forget past traumas, but nor will it live in the past.
The biggest problem with the KMT is that it appears not to have learned from the past at all. It refuses to face up to its deeds candidly and prefers to avoid the topic. The problem with the DPP is that it has yet to learn how to make good use of lessons learned to bring Taiwanese a better tomorrow.