Tue, Jan 12, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Democracy and human rights still regressing

By Gerrit van der Wees

As one of the signatories of the letter to president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) by a group of international academics and writers (“An open letter to Taiwan’s president,” Nov. 13, page 8), I was perplexed by the tone and content of the response from Government Information Office Minister Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) (“GIO response to Nov. 13 open letter,” Dec. 18, page 8).

Instead of welcoming the suggestions of such a distinguished group of international academics, Su went into a defensive mode, used quotes from organizations such as Freedom House out of context and tried to make us believe that all is well with judicial independence and the health of Taiwan’s democracy.

Taiwan still ranked among the world’s “free” countries in 2008 and last year because of the hard work of previous governments — the pioneering work of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and the sustained progress made under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

The point that minister Su seems to fail to understand is that — in the view of many international observers — Taiwan’s democracy and human rights have regressed since Ma came to office.

The “right answer” would have been to say the government would assess any shortcomings and take steps toward judicial reform.

This has also been suggested by other international academics, such as Jerome Cohen, but the only response from Taipei has been to whitewash the obvious flaws in the system and to assert that “everything is all right.”

In the next few days, Freedom House will issue its report for this year and one can bet that Taiwan’s standing in the rankings will go down.

So if the Ma administration is really serious about human rights and democracy it will need to seriously rethink its approach and move toward much-needed judicial reform.

On the issue of cross-strait relations, it is obvious that everyone is in favor of improvement. The question is: At what expense?

Many observers both inside and outside Taiwan are concluding that rapprochement with China has occurred at the expense of democracy and human rights.

It should be obvious to Su and his colleagues that this is not the right way to go about it.

In a separate response to another signatory, Richard Kagan, Su states: “The mantra that democracy in Taiwan is less robust than before utterly conflicts with reality.”

He then quotes the results of the recent local elections to prove his point.

What he fails to understand is the significant reduction in the KMT’s support has occurred because many people have doubts about the government’s adherence to basic principles of democracy and human rights.

If the Ma administration really intends to “significantly enhance the quality of our democracy” (Su’s words) it would be highly desirable if these basic principles were adhered too.

The recent beef problem with the US and the ongoing debate about an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China show that the Ma administration is still following a “top-down” approach, instead of listening to public opinion.

Gerrit van der Wees is the editor of Taiwan Communique in Washington.

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