When a former president is indicted, it is food for some fundamental reflection. So, when I heard about the indictment of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) on June 30, a number of thoughts came to mind.
The first and foremost was that he is an elderly statesman, 88 years old now, who played a crucial role in Taiwan’s transition to democracy. He is generally referred to as “the father of democracy,” a well-deserved title, as he led the country from the dark days of martial law and one-party rule to a flourishing and vibrant democracy.
Second, he very much wanted this new democracy to join the international community. During his presidency, he was highly creative and inventive in trying to expand Taiwan’s international space. “Vacation diplomacy” and “golf diplomacy” come to mind. In 1994, prodded by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opposition, he initiated the annual campaign for Taiwan to join the UN and pushed for membership in international organizations such as the WHO.
Third, he started to de-emphasize the Republic of China (ROC) symbolisms in Taiwan’s governance and society, moved toward relations with China on a state-to-state basis and facilitated the subsequent evolution toward a Taiwanese national identity.
What do these thoughts have to do with his indictment? In order to assess this, one needs to look at the role Lee is playing in present-day Taiwan and particularly in the next presidential election, on Jan. 14.
Since 2000, Lee has been at odds with the leadership of his former party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). He became the spiritual leader of the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union, recently spoke favorably of DPP Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and even made a political call to “Dump Ma to save Taiwan.”
Neither his previous quest for democracy nor his distancing Taiwan from China, nor his present advocacy of the democratic opposition has endeared him to the powers that be in the “old” or “new” KMT. While the present-day ruling party has had to adapt itself to the new reality of democracy in Taiwan, it still clings to its roots, its “ROC” shell of governance and its allegiance to some form of “unification.”
So, what does the charge by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office Special Investigation Panel (SIP) that Lee and a top aide illegally siphoned US$7.8 million from a secret diplomatic fund tell us? Perhaps it tells us that the system of checks and balances in the 1990s were not well developed, but Taiwan was still a budding democracy and Lee was — like his predecessors and successors — using secret diplomatic funds to expand Taiwan’s international space (and not for personal gain).
The timing of the charges — about 12 years after the fact — may also tell us more about the nature of the charges: They came right after Lee’s outspoken criticism of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his expression of support for Tsai. There have been denials that the charges were politically motivated and Ma has emphasized that he adheres to “judicial independence.”
However, that Lee is a former president does make it a political issue. Should he then not be prosecuted for alleged wrongdoing? The answer is no; there should be prosecution of cases where there is ample evidence. However, this should be done without any political bias, with timing that alleviates any appearance of impropriety and with the highest standard of objectivity. The judicial system in Taiwan has sadly yet to incorporate those high standards.
Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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