Mon, Jul 20, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Taiwan and Amnesty International

Once the focus of letter writing campaigns during the Martial Law era when hundreds of political prisoners were incarcerated, Taiwan today writes letters on behalf of others

By Jerome Keating  /  Contributing reporter

Bo Tedards in the offices of the Taiwan chapter of Amnesty International last month.

Photo: Jerome Keating

A prisoner of conscience languishes in a dank, dark cell. He is worried that his protests have been in vain and that he has been forgotten. He then learns that people from around the world are petitioning the government who locked him up to release him, and his spirits are revived. Examples of such a scenario are repeated over and over in the annals of Amnesty International.

“Action is the antidote to despair,” says Joan Baez, a folk singer and this year’s Amnesty Ambassador of Conscience. And action is what the over 7 million members of Amnesty International do on a regular basis around the world. Their primary focus is to write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience and call attention to those whose human rights have been violated.

Bo Tedards, Amnesty Taiwan’s director since 2013, says its primary function is letter and post card writing so as to bring global awareness to the plight of political prisoners.

“Post cards have become a unique way of spreading this awareness ... and see whose name and case is being protested,” Tedards said in an interview with the Taipei Times.

This is a reversal from the Martial Law era, when people from around the world adopted Taiwan for their letter-writing campaign because of the numbers of political prisoners incarcerated during that time. Today, the Taiwan chapter of Amnesty has its own letter-writing campaigns to other countries.

Amnesty traces it founding to Peter Benenson’s The Forgotten Prisoners, an article published in 1961. Benenson’s article served as a catalyst to gather like-minded people to raise global awareness of the plight of prisoners of conscience. Taiwan got on the radar of the human rights organization in 1964 when it was petitioned to look into the arrest of Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) and two associates for their attempted publication of A Declaration of Formosan Self-salvation.

“A strong movement is rapidly sweeping across Taiwan. It is a self-salvation movement for the 12 million [the population at that time] people of Taiwan, who are unwilling to be governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or destroyed by Chiang Kai-shek [蔣介石],” Peng wrote. He was soon arrested.

A breakthrough came when Martin Ennals, Amnesty’s secretary general, visited Taiwan and was secretly given a list by former prisoners Roger Hsieh (謝聰敏) and Li Ao (李敖) of over 180 political prisoners. Amnesty Japan (founded in 1970) helped to keep track of Taiwan’s political prisoners and, as a result, the Republic of China (ROC) government finally admitted that it had political prisoners.

The admission would have lasting repercussions. When numerous arrests were later made at a Human Rights rally in Kaohsiung (1979), later to be known as the Kaohsiung Incident, the trials of all those prisoners were closely watched.

In 1994, Amnesty Taiwan officially registered as an NGO, after having worked with the organization since 1989, and Bo Yang (柏楊), a former political prisoner, became its first chairman.


Every Amnesty group that sends letters keeps a record of how many it has sent and on whose behalf. Governments, even authoritarian ones, are bureaucratic by nature, so that when these letters arrive, they are read, registered and sent to the appropriate department to handle. Several people usually sign off on these letters as they go through appropriate channels. The letters later become part of the documentation.

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