A key theme in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex is the inescapable legacy of unresolved past crimes involving the state; and with them came a prophetic curse. The people of the ancient city of Thebes, caught in the mire of these past crimes (perhaps because they purposely overlooked them), suffer. As they struggle to get on with life with its immediate challenges, including the riddle of the Sphinx, they find that even when it is solved, they still cannot escape the past. Their former king, Laius, is actually part of it all. He had been welcomed despite having abused the hospitality of the King of Pelops in the past. Laius in turn tries to escape a vision predicting his death at the hands of his son by binding his son’s feet and ordering him to be left for dead. The son, Oedipus, unwittingly makes his way back to Thebes to fulfill the curse. As the classic play opens, the citizens have come to Oedipus for the solution to their woes, but Thebes will not be cleansed until justice is rendered and retribution for past crimes achieved.
Taiwan finds itself in a comparable situation; it struggles with many external threats, a hegemonic neighbor, the troubling economy of a modern world, but the country also remains haunted by its failure to face and resolve its inescapable past. The widening corruption case surrounding the former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世) highlights how that past, periodically buried, regularly resurfaces in the corrupt systems endemic within the state.
Lin’s appointment rested on the direct recommendation and support of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Such involvement not only raises questions about Ma’s judgement, but also his level of responsibility and his legitimacy. How can Ma, with his own unresolved past, ever be the one to right the wrongs of the nation? From his early years, when Ma was a suspected student spy and informer for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), to his ascendancy of a fawning system through to his claiming ignorance and innocence about how his secretary placed more than US$500,000 in his bank account, Ma’s life is checkered with question marks.
As the recent corruption case unravels, Lin, as Ma’s appointee, is appearing more and more to be one of several KMT “go-to” men who were used for corrupt deals, influence-peddling and appointment-buying. Prosecutors, military generals and businesspeople have all looked to Lin as someone who could help them. Lin allegedly boasted that he could assure someone’s chances of success if they greased his palm with the right amount. In such matters, Lin obviously did not act alone; he was more a conduit, one of many profiting through these “bribes.”
Though Lin, and then his mother, failed lie detector tests, this was more than a family affair and the case points to the corruption that has always run deep within the KMT and the systems that it brought to Taiwan. Perhaps this is why the prosecutors and Special Investigation Division (SID) appear so reluctant to pursue the case with the vigor it demands.
To outside observers, Taiwan has the veneer of democracy, but unresolved crimes and vestiges from its past hang over the country like the crimes in Sophocles’ tragedy on the ancient city of Thebes.
Among such crimes three stand out in particular: First, there are the stolen state assets; After that comes transitional justice, ie, the fact that individuals responsible for the imprisonment, torture and deaths which unfolded under Martial Law and during the one-party state era are still walking the streets; Finally there is the impoverished judicial system which has never had its dinosaur judges and prosecutors purged. To this day they continue to abuse justice. In the face of this, all talk of Ma’s anti-corruption campaign appears as simple window dressing, a charade designed to beguile a complacent public. Looking deeper it even suggests that the corruption case against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁)was an orchestrated ruse, a double standard to distract people from the genuinely corrupt system that remains well entrenched.