Sat, Feb 12, 2011 - Page 3 News List

INTERVIEW: ‘Fireproof Moth’ recalls experiences during White Terror

A US missionary couple, Milo and Judith Thornberry, played a key role in Taiwanese democracy activist Peng Ming-min’s escape to Sweden during the White Terror era. Milo Thornberry has written a memoir of those days, titled ‘Fireproof Moth: A Missionary Couple in Taiwan During the White Terror Period.’ He talked with contributing reporter Dan Bloom about his and his then-wife’s experiences

In 1966, soon after we had arrived, this Canadian missionary feared that Taiwan would not allow him back into the country when he went back to Canada that summer. For reasons best known to him, he decided to introduce us to Peng. We went to dinner at Peng’s home while he was still under informal house arrest, though we did not know about that when we went. When we left the house, we had our first direct experience with the police state. A Garrison Command jeep tailed our taxi until we got to the movie district in Taipei and quickly got out of the cab and walked into a coffee shop.

We were immediately attracted to Peng, and he to us. Over the next four years, despite the fact that he was under surveillance all the time [or was supposed to have been,] he came to our house every week. These visits were never detected by the authorities, and never showed up on any of the lists of our offenses against the ROC.

In these four years, we developed a packet of articles from international scholarly periodicals on the reality in Taiwan that we anonymously published and distributed to foreign visitors who wanted to know more about the country. We had no business trying to persuade Taiwanese of anything, but we felt we had an obligation to offer an alternative view especially to American visitors. In time, we also devised a plan to provide financial support for families of political prisoners in Taiwan.

Bloom: The constant threat of discovery by the secret police gave you your own taste of the White Terror era. Can you provide some details?

Thornberry: One example: When Hsieh was in prison the first time, he learned a postal code from a postal security employee who had been sent to prison for stealing money from letters. That code printed on every letter indicated whether it had been read, by which security agency, the time and desk through which the letter passed. In 1970 when Hsieh gave me the code, I began to see how an increasing number of letters to us were being opened and passed to the Garrison Command. Our mail of any significance was smuggled in and out through Hong Kong, but now I could see that my time in Taiwan was limited.

Bloom: When police showed up at your door on March 3, 1971, you became the first missionaries arrested since the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] took over the island in 1945. Although the KMT leaked a panoply of charges to explain the arrest and deportation, Peng’s escape and your other activities were not among them. Instead, officials in Taiwan reported you as terrorists. The line in Beijing was that you and Judith were CIA agents. How come they knew so little about what you were really doing?

Thornberry: According to a Colonel Wang at the Foreign Affairs Police headquarters when we were arrested, we were charged with “activities unfriendly to the Government of the Republic of China.” When asked to sign the arrest warrant, I refused to do so unless I was given a copy. He refused, so I didn’t sign.

The list of charges unofficially released later to the press and to the US State Department included terrorism, importing explosives, bombing the USIS [US Information Service] in Tainan the previous October and the Bank of America in Taipei in February 1971, plotting to overthrow the government, and others. We weren’t terrorists. We didn’t import explosives. We didn’t bomb the USIS or Bank of America, and while we wished for it, we didn’t plot to overthrow the ROC government. US State Department communiques make it clear that while the ROC made these charges,they refused to show any proof to the US.

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