Established only four months ago, the Cabinet’s Transitional Justice Commission shoulders the public’s hopes of eliminating authoritarian symbols, restoring historical truth and promoting social reconciliation.
However, unexpectedly, at a meeting last month, then-commission deputy chairman Chang Tien-chin (張天欽) described Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) New Taipei City mayoral candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) as “the most despicable case in transitional justice” and likened the commission to the Dong Chang (東廠), a notorious secret police agency during the Ming Dynasty.
He was later accused of making the statement with the upcoming local elections in mind.
After a recording of the closed-door meeting made by an assistant researcher at the commission was exposed, Chang’s remarks triggered an uproar. Caught in the crossfire, Chang tendered his resignation, which was approved by Premier William Lai (賴清德).
Determined not to leave the matter at that, KMT leaders and legislators demanded that commission members resign en masse and the agency be temporarily suspended. They also filed a lawsuit with the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office against Chang and those involved in the case.
The incident shows that although the term “transitional justice” might seem easy to understand, it is complex and multifaceted, and implementing it is a great undertaking.
It also shows that even within the commission, there are different opinions of what transitional justice means, not to mention the sharp divisions in the political arena, and the differing values and interests throughout different social contexts.
People should understand that although transitional justice might sound like a straightforward project, it is not, and it seems it will take longer than expected.
Transitional justice would not be a quiet revolution.
The incident has drawn criticism from all sides not only because the elections are approaching, but also because it has uncovered a bias over implementing transitional justice.
It was both correct and necessary for President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Lai to take action to stop the bleeding as soon as the case came to light.
If they had not done so, the opportunity to implement transitional justice might have vanished due to the partiality of a few officials.
It is a reminder to the Tsai administration that such a significant national project must be handled by the right people, so as to avoid controversy and failure.
The KMT might have had political motives to seize the opportunity to call for a reorganization of the commission, but the appointment of commission members had already caused controversy when they were first announced.
If the government uses the incident as an opportunity to carry out a personnel reshuffle, it could turn it into something positive by reorganizing the transitional justice project and regaining public trust.
However, following the incident, some people who are clearly the targets of transitional justice efforts have transformed themselves into defenders of justice and questioned the foundations of the project — an attitude that blurs the line between making inappropriate remarks and supporting evil-doing.
In the dark recesses of their minds, these people do not feel even the slightest regret for having chosen to throw their lot in with the past authoritarian government.
Moreover, they claim that transitional justice should address the Japanese colonial rule in a bid to divert the attention from themselves.
One result of this is the continued exploitation of the “comfort women” issue by certain political parties and groups.
Without the reconciliation provided by the transitional justice process, they would forever be unable to recover from their dark subconscious and continue to linger on the Taiwanese political and social stage as ghosts repeatedly bring up past injustices.
The Spanish legislature has passed a bill proposed by the government to remove the remains of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, a shrine near Madrid. Aiming the transitional justice process at Franco restores the dignity of those who had died in the Spanish Civil War.
Taiwan is facing a similar situation, but things are moving forward at a snail’s pace. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the Cihu Mausoleum and the statues of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) continue to exist in democratic Taiwan, serving as the last spiritual outposts against transitional justice.
Those who protect the authoritarian symbols are singing from the same hymn sheet as Beijing, treating democratic Taiwan as an enemy for trying to maintain its independence.
They show no regret for their misdeeds during the authoritarian era, and they even try to take advantage of Taiwan’s democratic system, in the hope that voters will have forgotten past persecutions and will return these unreformed people to power.
If they stage a successful comeback, it would be a catastrophe for democracy and transitional justice.
Former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) presidency from 2008 to 2016 was a dark restoration of the KMT regime, and perhaps Ma is eager to stage a comeback.
Although the Chang incident was an individual case, it has hurt the commission.
Transitional justice is difficult to achieve, as some people in the government and opposition are exploiting the issue as part of their intraparty struggles.
If political wrestling is not removed from the transitional justice process, it could be vulgarized, not to mention the possibility of another power transfer.
In the end, the transitional justice commission might become a slaughterhouse rather than a platform for reconciliation.
To prevent the nation from choosing the wrong path, action must be taken by civil society to make all parties understand the importance of transitional justice and make them concentrate their efforts on transforming Taiwan.
If they do not, Taiwan will never be politically healed.
The controversy over the commission has only brought political confrontation and election-related posturing on both sides, while civil society has largely remained silent.
Perhaps this is the greatest cause of concern as people push for transitional justice.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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