Feb. 28 marked the 73rd anniversary of the 228 Incident, in which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of then-president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) — based in Nanjing, China — sent troops to crush an uprising in Taiwan. As she does every year, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) attended and spoke at the main ceremony commemorating the incident at the 228 Peace Memorial Park in Taipei.
The Tsai government has been administering Taiwan for four years. Although her administration lists transitional justice as one of its core tasks, it is still far short of its short-term and long-term objectives. With a second four-year term ahead of her, Tsai will need to race against time.
As Tsai said at last year’s 228 Incident memorial ceremony, “time is indeed the greatest enemy of transitional justice.”
The numbers of victims of the 228 Incident and the ensuing White Terror era, and of their family members who lived through the decades of authoritarian rule, are gradually dwindling. Regrettably, few of them are left to see the fruits of transitional justice. If modern democracy can make some contribution to righting past wrongs, the most basic condition for doing so is to strive to get closer to the truth by completing the puzzle on the basis of existing historical documents and files.
However, the job of laying this foundation for pursuing transitional justice has not gone at all smoothly. In the days of former presidents Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), there was a multitude of intelligence and security agencies, so many files were distributed among different agencies.
Over the years, these various agencies have been downsized or merged. In the process, some have preserved their files better than others.
Around the beginning of last year, the National Archives Administration started the task of collecting political files. In some agencies, the people in charge could not say how many files had been left over from their predecessors, while Tsai has commended some other agencies for opening their archives and willingly cooperating, and for having diligently preserved and categorized their files.
There are some intelligence agencies that have not declassified all their key files. Their attitude is controversial in this day and age, when democracy and transparency have become the norm.
It is especially unacceptable to certain members of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration who served time in prison for political reasons. Consequently, there are disagreements within the government about how to handle such matters.
The key factor in the job of processing historical documents and files is whether the whole government has a consensus and unified approach, so the Tsai administration’s pursuit of transitional justice is really a process of self-transformation within the government.
In 2017 Tsai for the first time attended the main 228 Incident commemoration ceremony in her capacity as president. In her speech on that occasion, she said that we should “put to rest the idea that in the 228 Incident there were only victims, and no victimizers.”
She added that when that “when the victimizers are willing to apologize, and the victims and their families are willing to forgive ... Taiwan’s democracy will take another step forward.”
The 228 commemoration ceremony in 2018 took place not long before the Transitional Justice Commission was established and commenced operations. At that ceremony, Tsai said that the commission would “conduct an institutional review of systemic infringement from the authoritarian era.”
As well as proposing specific demands, Tsai’s government placed the heavy responsibility of seeking transitional justice on the shoulders of the commission.
However, in August of that year came the “eastern depot incident,” in which a meeting of one of the commission’s committees was exposed as having discussed targeting then-KMT New Taipei City mayoral candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜). This incident undermined trust in the commission’s independence and the work of transitional justice became tainted with political struggle.
This was one of the reasons the DPP suffered a heavy defeat in the November 2018 local government elections.
Following the DPP’s election setback, Tsai sought to rescue the commission’s reputation by reshuffling its membership.
However, with regard to the commission’s advocacy of removing the influence of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, Tsai said at a news conference on Dec. 18, 2018, that neither she nor the commission had the sole power to make such decisions. She also redefined the role of the commission as clarifying the truth and promoting public reconciliation regarding historical events.
Tsai urged the commission to concentrate on investigations and research. However, the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice (促進轉型正義條例) says that one of the commission’s five missions is “removing authoritarian symbols.”
The DPP’s election losses detracted from the government’s legitimacy, so the bonds of realpolitik caused Tsai’s government to restrain itself with regard to transitional justice.
At last year’s 228 commemoration ceremony, Tsai did not raise specific demands, but rather spoke about the long-term goals of transitional justice.
“We want to make it possible for every single person living in Taiwan to feel [a] sense of ease each day,” she said. “We want them to be able to … express their opinions freely. We want to work together to build a better democratic society.”
Another battlefield of transitional justice is to recover ill-gotten party assets, but this, too, is a long and arduous task. The Cabinet’s Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee has throttled the umbilical between the KMT’s finances and its ill-gotten assets. However, most cases have been bogged down by litigation over the definition of party assets or affiliate organizations.
As well as spending a great deal of time fighting on this front, the committee has many times run up against “dinosaur” court judgements. This problem intersects with Tsai’s pursuit of judicial reform. Various parts of the judiciary are out of step with transitional justice, and the crossfire between progressive and regressive forces is slowing the progress of reform.
Tsai was first elected president in 2016, when her party also gained a majority of seats in the legislature. With control of the executive and legislative branches of government, the DPP felt very sure of itself, but it had limited success in promoting transitional justice over that four-year term.
From the point of view of victims’ relatives, out of the three stages of procedural justice that they call for — truth, justice and reconciliation — the process is still stuck at the stage of clarifying the truth.
The experience of these four years shows that what transitional justice has to confront is not just how to restore the true face of history or respond to the needs and demands of victims’ relatives, but the question of whether the entire government has really moved toward “transition.” For example, there is the issue of what to do about the “banal evil” of those who played a part in government in the authoritarian era. Without thorough reform, government departments will continue to trip over themselves and even obstruct one another.
Aside from clarifying the past, an even more important goal of transition is to advance toward a progressive future where the wrongs of the past will never be repeated. Responsibility for guiding such reforms lies with Tsai herself.
Taiwanese voters have authorized Tsai to serve a second four-year term. They have given her greater legitimacy with the biggest-ever number of votes for a presidential candidate in the nation.
Tsai’s duty as president is not just to offer consolation. It is even more meaningful for her to tell victims, their relatives and everyone else what more she can do in the coming four years to promote reform within the government.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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