As President Chen Shui-bian (
Was it a reference to the progress being made in vocational education and information and communications technology in The Gambia? The memo signed with Swaziland, promising a stationed medical mission for the southern African kingdom, perhaps? Or maybe the commendable land-reclamation and irrigation projects being undertaken in Burkina Faso to furnish rural poor with thousands of hectares of workable paddy land?
One thing is certain: "Progressive" does not describe the nature of the regimes in these nations. As one who fought, and even served time in the name of press freedom, Chen should be ashamed to be seen indulging in mutual back-patting with virtual autocrats like Blaise Compaore.
Though there is nominal freedom of the press in Burkina Faso, just this year Reporters Without Borders (RWB) warned that criticizing the ruling elite is a "high-risk exercise." Just ask the family of Norbert Zongo, a respected newspaper editor and novelist whose charred remains were found in a burnt-out vehicle 100km outside the capital Ougadougou in late 1998. Zongo's paper L'Independant had been investigating the alleged complicity of Compaore's brother Francois in the torture and murder of his chauffeur.
Last year, after years of prevaricating, prosecutors dropped all charges against Marcel Kafando, former head of the Presidential Guard. Amazingly, this is the same Compaore crony who had been the prime suspect in the murder Zongo was investigating. An independent inquiry concluded the killing was politically motivated. It didn't come as a big surprise to most Burkinabes. Compaore's critics and competitors have had a habit of meeting sticky ends over the years.
When former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara was assassinated in 1987 as part of a bloody coup, which saw Compaore seize power, he was in the process of implementing some of the most radical reforms attempted by any contemporary African leader. These included stripping tribal chiefs of their feudal powers, the advancement of women's rights (female circumcision and polygamy were outlawed), overhauls of the health care and tax systems, and a massive anti-graft drive. He was also perhaps the first African head of state to publicly acknowledge the gravity of the threat posed by AIDS. Unfortunately, "Thom'Sank" had trodden on too many toes, and -- as is often the case in African politics -- paid for it with his life.
Again, no one was brought to book for the crime, though Compaore was contrite enough to label his close friend's murder a regrettable "accident," like he had just spilt someone's beer. Last year, at the behest of Sankara's widow, the UN condemned the way the affair had been swept under the carpet.
Meanwhile, never one to let annoying details like the Constitution get in the way of his megalomania, Campaore decided that, because an amendment limiting the number of presidential terms was not enacted until 2000, it could not be retroactively applied to his first stint, which ran from 1991 to 1998. The nation's constitutional council seemed to find this reasonable, paving the way for him to run again in 2005.
And A-bian was on hand to offer congratulations to his pal Blaise when the inevitable landslide (81 percent) victory came in. According to reports at the time, Chen "expressed the hope that Compare's ruling party [would] win a majority in the next parliamentary elections."
Funnily enough, it did.
Chen also apparently voiced "his admiration and respect for Compaore," noting that he had "helped mediate conflicts among neighboring countries."
This will be news to those who have accused Compaore of being bosom-buddies with former Liberian despot Charles Taylor, currently facing trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone.
In 2002, Liberian journalist Abdoulaye Dukule reported that Campaore had helped exacerbate civil wars in neighboring countries by training "thousands of illiterate angry youth from Liberians [sic] and Sierra Leone before unleashing them on innocent people."
A thousand kilometers to the West, we have another thoroughly unsavory character in the form of The Gambia's Yahya Jammeh, who grabbed power in a 1994 coup. Deposed president Dawda Jawara escaped with his life but was banned from politics for the rest of it.
Jammeh is also no fan of journalists and has been quoted as saying they should be given "a long rope to hang themselves." But these hacks are an obstinate bunch and someone obviously felt they needed a helping hand. In December 2005, draconian legislation was passed which made press offenses such as libel punishable by imprisonment of six months or more, and forced media outlets to reapply for licenses at five times the original cost.
With Jammeh seeking a third term in presidential elections the following year, the move was seen as preemptive. One prominent critic was Deyda Hydara, editor of the independent newspaper The Point and a correspondent for Agence France-Presse and RWB. Hydara expressed his disgust with the new laws. He was shot dead that same month. The murder remains unsolved. Sensing a pattern here?
Incidentally, guess who gave Jammeh a call to wish him all the best after his re-election? This time, then premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) was even dispatched to attend the inauguration. And, to assuage fears that he was being wooed by China, Jammeh reportedly assured Taipei that: "The Gambia is a nation with dignity that cannot be bribed, it will always stand on the side of justice and truth and continue to lend its staunch support to Taiwan."
Perhaps the most shocking crime of Jammeh's tenure was the 2005 massacre of 54 immigrants, most of whom were Ghanaian. A top Gambian police officer claimed that, fearing a coup, Jammeh had given the order to "deal with them."
Alas, Jammeh didn't make it to the Sept. 9 First Taiwan-African Heads of State Summit or Sept. 10 love-in. Perhaps he was too busy in his new role of faith healer. The president has succeeded where the world's best scientists have foundered, and developed a cure for AIDS.
"I get rid of the virus from the body," said a po-faced Jammeh in a BBC documentary. "That is what I do."
The film shows Jammeh blessing peanuts and massaging his secret remedy into the body of an emaciated patient. The president asks his charge to breathe at intervals and then asks him whether his discomfort is "reducing." Each time, the patient affirms that it is, until finally it miraculously disappears.
"Tell me the truth," Jammeh says. "Is it gone or is it still there?"
"I am telling you the truth, sir. It's gone," murmurs the patient.
Swaziland's King Mswati III is neither as cynical nor sinister as his West African counterparts. Still, despite his supporters' protestations to the contrary, he is an absolute ruler who is not bound by the nation's Constitution, which his father suspended in 1973, banning political parties in the process.
As head of state, he gets to decide his (allegedly exorbitant) salary, has an unspecified amount of shares and investments in many of the nation's industries, and splurges US$500,000 on custom-made cars while two-thirds of his subjects languish in abject poverty.
The country has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world (nearly 40 percent), with many deprived of access to life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs, yet this globulous bon vivant taxes charities and educational organizations because of a budgetary shortfall.
Amnesty International has also expressed its concerns about frequent rights abuses in the kingdom, with accusations of assaults, torture and deaths in police custody routinely uninvestigated.
Taiwan is in a unique predicament. Critics disparage its allies as irrelevances; diplomatic backwaters that do little for the nation, while scrounging for handouts. But what would they have Taiwan do? Drop them all and go solo?
This seems unfeasible. A fairer argument might be for Taiwan to be more discerning in its choice of friends. However, even this would be unrealistic.
Why should Taiwan, which needs every ally it can get, steer clear of unpleasant regimes when the world's big guns maintain ties with them?
Taiwan's leaders frequently trumpet the nation's transition to democracy and respect for human rights as an example of the "Taiwan miracle."
This is understandable. Yet how does Chen reconcile this with his gushing praise for the authoritarian rule of Compaore and Jammeh?
The question is: Does maintaining ties with these countries hinge on publicly praising their leaders as beacons of democracy and freedom?
Chen should keep private his handshakes, obsequious grins and congratulatory phone calls. Otherwise he appears nothing more than a soulless hypocrite.
Kim Lee is the nom de plume of an employee of the Executive Yuan.
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