Down Taiwan’s political rabbit hole

By Julian Baum and Sam Lang  / 

Fri, May 06, 2011 - Page 8

Even for a government that has made a virtue of entangling its political opposition in doubtful criminal allegations, the affair of the missing presidential documents is baffling. The charges are audacious and the circumstances confusing.

Coming about three years after the transfer of presidential power, the affair remains mystifying, except when seen as a devious political stratagem.

For those exposed to the demagoguery against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) that appears routinely in the Taiwanese news media, the case may seem to be politics as usual. For many international observers, notably the 34 academics and writers who courageously signed an open letter to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last month, the charges look tainted and deeply suspect, even after a fuller explanation from the presidential spokesman.

In late March, Ma’s office claimed that substantially all — more than 90 percent — of the official documents from Chen’s presidential office have gone missing.

According to Ma’s spokesman Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強), a full-scale audit took two-and-a-half years and concluded that sensitive and classified documents were neither properly accounted for nor archived by the outgoing staff of the former president. Seventeen senior officials, including the former president and vice president, are named as defendants.

Informed observers knowledgeable about large bureaucracies and the vast volumes of paper and electronic materials coursing through them say the charges are problematic and difficult to prove. They also may be substantially without merit, unless there is definitive evidence that original copies of official public documents have been intentionally stolen or destroyed. Although refraining from public statements about the case, several former senior officials of Chen’s government have said privately they find the charges to be “incredible” and “outrageous.”

Meanwhile, speaking out for the first time, two of Chen’s senior Presidential Office aides have defended the conduct of his staff in handling official files and the transfer of power. The aides, Chiang Chih-ming (江志銘) and Liu Dao (劉導), say that responsible officials were careful to observe the rules on handling official documents and archived materials. (Chiang is now a member of the Taipei City Council.) They strongly dispute the government’s allegations.

The former aides said Chen’s Presidential Office director Lin Teh-hsun (林德訓) cooperated at length with investigators on several occasions in 2006 to release presidential files, even as Chen was claiming constitutional privileges and immunity against prosecution. In those visits, state prosecutors impounded dozens of boxes of presidential records as possible evidence of wrongdoing involving the state affairs fund.

Even after Chen left office in 2008, they recalled, his personal staff invited officials from Ma’s Presidential Office to inspect the files he had kept for reference in writing his memoirs in order to defuse accusations that he had removed inappropriate documents.

Chiang and Liu also strongly disagreed that the transfer of power in May 2008 was a “ceremonial formality,” as Ma’s spokesman commented in responding to the open letter from the international academics and writers. According to these aides, Chen’s office scrupulously followed rules and procedures before transferring staff positions, holding frequent meetings with the incoming administration. Before departing their posts, staffers were required to go through various reviews, whose purpose was to make sure files were properly stored and reported.

“We did everything that was required of us,” Chiang said.

In searching to explain the government’s charges, the two former aides noted the difference between the vast volume of unaccountable materials coming to the office and the tightly regulated gongwen — official documents — that originated in the Presidential Office and were much fewer in number. They described “a loophole in the system,” with no clear distinction between which documents required little or no accountability and those which had strict rules. Even the gongwen from other government agencies were copies that were routinely destroyed after use. These differences afford a wide margin for error or even manipulation, they said, for those who might claim a gap in the archives.

While the facts of this case may be in dispute, the larger context is clear. This is the latest chapter in a protracted legal and political struggle between the former president and state prosecutors over access to records. One informed observer commented that if prosecutors are now frustrated with gathering evidence to proceed with further indictments against Chen and his administration, this case may help shake loose new information or show why further charges may not be forthcoming.

The details of the case may be of less consequence than the timing. The start of a four-year cycle of election campaigns for the president and legislature is a politically convenient time for the government, Lin Feng-jeng (林峰正) of the Judicial Reform Foundation said.

In an interview, Lin raised many questions: Why did this take almost three years before it was brought to public attention? Why assign so few people to the audit? Why haven’t others spoken out before now?

It is “inconceivable,” Lin said, that no public servants emerged to report such violations when they are the ones most liable under the law. He also said the Control Yuan has petitioned for more guidance on what it should do next, as there is no precedent for such an investigation or disciplinary action.

Whether this affair is merely a legal rabbit hole, embroiling key opposition leaders in burdensome litigation, is a question that needs an answer before next year.

There are many reasons to believe that it is indeed just that.

Julian Baum is a former Taiwan correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Sam Lang studied political science at the London School of Economics and is working on a documentary on Taiwan’s political development for Gatling Pictures.