Former US missionary Milo Thornberry warned Washington about the danger of a second “conspiracy of silence” sweeping over Taiwan.
Thornberry, who was a central figure in helping human rights leader Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) escape from Taiwan during the years of the White Terror, said “shadows from the past” could be returning.
At a lecture to the George Washington University Taiwan Forum and later as keynote speaker at the Thanksgiving dinner of the Taiwanese Association of Greater Washington on Saturday, Thornberry spoke about his fears for the future.
Thornberry went to Taiwan as a missionary of the Methodist Church at the end of 1965 and over the next few years — as recounted in his recently published book Fireproof Moth — secretly distributed money to the families of political prisoners.
He and his wife also worked to inform the outside world of the torture, the executions and the repression practiced under the Martial Law era regime of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
In particular, he collaborated with Peng and two former students — Hsieh Tsung-min (謝聰敏) and Wei Ting-chao (魏廷朝) — who were both arrested, “horribly tortured,” tried in a secret court and served long prison terms.
At the time, Taiwan was awash with Americans — missionaries, students, teachers, military and US State Department personnel, businesspeople and tourists — and yet they did almost nothing to stop the White Terror, he said.
Back in the US, Americans did not know what was happening because of what Thornberry called “a conspiracy of silence.”
“There were a few voices who reported the corruption and brutality of Chiang and the Nationalists, but their voices were lost in the deafening crescendo of anti--communism in the US,” Thornberry said.
“Anti-communism justified the US’ decision to look the other way when it came to White Terror,” he said.
There was, he said, a “callous disregard of human rights by our own State Department.”
He said that the “shadows” from the period of martial law had a bearing on the diverging views of Taiwan’s future.
After democratization in Taiwan, none of the officials responsible for the White Terror were brought to account, Thornberry said.
“Since the election of the [President] Ma [Ying-jeou (馬英九)] administration, not much has been heard from it about the period of White Terror,” he added.
“Does the KMT [Chinese Nationalist Party] simply want to forget that period, believing that younger generations who didn’t experience White Terror will not care about it?” he asked.
However, he said, until this past is acknowledged openly and dealt with justly, “I wonder if Taiwan can live into the future without denial.”
“The shadows of the conspiracy of silence also fall on the US government,” he added.
“Some in today’s administration seem little more concerned about the hopes and aspirations of the Taiwanese people than they were during the period of White Terror,” he said.
“Although they knew the reality, they deemed it in the US national interest to disregard the Taiwanese people in favor of Chiang Kai-shek,” Thornberry said.
“Now, I fear that the Taiwanese people’s interests are disregarded because of US interests in China, not to mention the complication of our indebtedness to China. The issues now and then are different, but the readiness to disregard the will of the Taiwanese people is the same,” he said.
Thornberry asked whose side the US was really on.
“Are we on the side of a democratic Taiwan or that of a repressive China? Are we letting China dictate what constitutes stability? Is the past even past?” he asked.
“I believe the struggle for justice will continue in Taiwan in and beyond the elections of Jan. 14, 2012. Unless we choose to be blind, as the citizens of the US were when White Terror reigned, our people and our institutions of government need also to come to terms with our past in Taiwan,” he said.
“That’s no small task,” Thornberry said.
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