During the presidency of Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), the Executive Yuan published the first-ever official report into the 228 Massacre: A Research Report on the 228 Massacre, in 1994, which made a real contribution to furthering understanding of the massacre.
If Lee had not taken the initiative to go ahead with the report, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) would never have commissioned a report by itself; its publication was a significant step forward for Taiwanese society.
In 1991, the Executive Yuan had established a special committee to investigate the incident. The committee invited several prominent historians specializing in Taiwanese history, including National Central University history professor Lai Jeh-hang (賴澤涵), National Taiwan University history professors Huang Fu-san (黃富三) and Wu Wen-hsing (吳文星), Academia Sinica Institute of Taiwan History research fellow Hsu Hsueh-chi (許雪姬) and Huang Hsiu-cheng (黃秀政).
The release of the report broke a long-standing KMT taboo, and its authors had the courage to face up to mistakes committed by the party. However, the committee had only limited access to the relevant historical records and were constrained by the political environment of that era. The report was, to a large degree, a transitional report.
The stumbling blocks encountered by the committee were considerable. After all, it should be remembered that at the time, Taiwan had not yet achieved a transition of political power. Many official historical explanations were still strongly influenced by the KMT’s authoritarian grip on power.
At the time, not only was there no concrete explanation of who was responsible for the massacre, but many official documents relating to the Incident were not in the public domain. The authors of the report were unable to provide a full perspective and did not have all the historical documents available to them.
Last year, Taiwan underwent its third transition of political power. During Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) tenure as president, he ordered all departments to release their documents relating to the incident.
Twenty-three years have passed since the release of the report. As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Incident, the report seems tired and outdated.
As President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration sees it, it must on the one hand manage a wide-ranging program of political reform, while on the other summoning the courage to deal with the challenges thrown up by Taiwan’s troubled political past.
Many Taiwanese are concerned that with the 70th anniversary of the Incident almost upon us, Tsai will simply continue the precedent set by past presidents of issuing an apology and seeking compromise, without providing the public with a clearer explanation of the facts.
Given the significance of the anniversary, the Tsai administration should seriously consider commissioning a new report into the incident.
Another important anniversary is almost upon us: It will soon be one year since the Tsai administration took office. It is facing a generational change in Taiwanese politics. After the Sunflower movement in particular, the shifting sands of Taiwan’s political landscape are reshaping society.
Taiwan has begun to enter a new phase of its political development: full democracy. The young generation are naturally for Taiwanese independence since all they know is an independent Taiwan, therefore one would have thought that this government would adopt a more broad-minded and robust attitude than that of the administrations of Lee, Chen or former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
In 2006, the Chen administration established a truth commission to investigate the 228 Incident and completed a new investigative report that aimed to attribute responsibility.
The report clearly pointed to Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) as the main culprit behind the massacre and pinned secondary responsibility on then-Taiwan governor-general Chen Yi (陳儀), Kaohsiung Fortress commander Peng Meng-chi (彭孟緝) and Taiwan Garrison Command secret police chief of staff Ko Yuan-fen (柯遠芬).
The report is important and should not be left to collect dust. It should be incorporated into any new report on the Incident to provide future generations with a clearer understanding of how it came about and how events subsequently developed.
It is especially important to ensure that the younger generation of Taiwanese historians have access to a reliable historical account of the Incident’s background, how it unfolded and its aftereffects. Armed with the facts, they will be able to write with more courage and insight than the authors of the 1996 report.
Taiwan today enjoys a free and open academic environment, and a new report would therefore be eagerly anticipated. It should include not just accounts of the suffering of Taiwanese, but also of Chinese newcomers caught up in the violence and reprisals.
As for China’s attempt to muscle in on this year’s 228 commemorations, Tsai should take a more robust line and not allow Beijing the right to interpret Taiwan’s history.
As the pace of transitional justice begins to pick up, now is the time for the nation to reflect upon its tragic past and rebuild for the future; it must not be put off any longer.
In addition to commemorating the Incident, the government must fully embrace the new era of civic participation that is now upon us. The time has come for a new official investigation into the 228 Incident.
Chen Fang-ming is director of the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Edward Jones
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