Saturday, March 3, 2007

Tussle over 228

In Taiwan, the anniversary of a 1947 massacre is just another opportunity for political squabbling

By Jonathan Adams
Asia Times, March 1, 2007

When former Kuomintang (KMT) chairman Ma Ying-jeou visited Taipei's 228 Memorial Museum on Tuesday to meet with relatives of victims of a 1947 massacre, not everyone gave him a warm reception. Ma met with the relatives in a bid to heal wounds left over from the tragedy, in which KMT troops brutally put down a local uprising against one and a half years of the party's bumbling rule of Taiwan. For at least one relative, Ma's visit was just another insincere stunt. "Stop making political shows, Ma Ying-jeou!" shouted an irate Hsiao Chin-wen, as Ma chatted quietly with the group over tea. "Don't politicize the event anymore!"

On the 60th anniversary of the 2/28 Incident, such criticisms were more heated than ever -- and Ma wasn't the only target. President Chen Shui-bian's lame-duck government also came under fire, for using the date to score political points and foment anti-KMT sentiment as the 2008 presidential campaign gets under way. So it goes on the bitterly divided island: each side uses the 2/28 Incident to push its own political agenda, while accusing the other of politicizing the date. The result is that for many increasingly cynical Taiwanese, the anniversary is just another battleground in a long political war -- and an excuse for politicians to try to stir up conflict where none exists. "The 2/28 Incident has nothing to do with us, it's something the older generation cares about," said Jamie Huang, a 21-year-old student at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. "There's no problem between waishengren [mainlanders who came to Taiwan with the KMT in the 1940s] and benshengren [local Taiwanese who predate that wave of immigration]. But politicians use 2/28 because they want there to be a problem."

The incident may be ancient history for youth like Huang, and politicians like Chen and Ma weren't even born when it occurred. But for elderly Taiwanese, including former president Lee Teng-hui, it's still very much a living memory. It began when KMT officials beat a woman selling black-market cigarettes in downtown Taipei on February 27, 1947, and then shot dead an angry onlooker. That sparked days of anti-KMT riots that spread islandwide. The KMT began negotiations with local Taiwanese to end the standoff, but between March 6 and 18, KMT forces garrisoned in the south and reinforcements from the mainland that landed in the north went on a killing spree. They slaughtered civilians at random to terrorize the Taiwanese into submission, and carried out a targeted campaign to wipe out the Taiwanese elite -- local leaders and intellectuals - who represented the biggest threat to KMT rule. To this date the numbers killed are uncertain, but historians estimate 30,000.

Those facts are not generally disputed. But given Taiwan's polarization, the raw politicking over 2/28 is perhaps inevitable. For Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), appeals to Taiwan-first patriotism and anti-KMT hatred are time-honored ways to shore up support for the party's "deep green" base. For such people, 2/28 represents the original sin of a repressive, authoritarian KMT regime, whose still-visible legacy remains to be completely dismantled. The most prominent icon of that regime: late president Chiang Kai-shek, whose portrait once hung in every classroom -- where speaking the Taiwanese dialect was long forbidden -- as part of a campaign to indoctrinate Taiwanese in the KMT's Chinese nationalism.

Since taking power in 2000, Chen's government, whose grander ambitions have been blocked by the opposition-controlled legislature, has been quietly removing Chiang's image from classrooms, museums and military bases. (At Huang's high school in Taichung, a prominent Chiang statue vanished during one winter vacation about five years ago without a word from school officials.) Now there's a bigger target: Taipei's landmark Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which the government wants to transform into a democracy memorial hall. And this year, Chen stressed that Chiang was ultimately to blame for the tragedy, and demanded that the KMT apologize for the atrocities of the entire martial-law era, which lasted until 1987.

Whether such moves represent appeals for "transitional justice" in a young democracy or mere KMT-bashing depends, of course, on your politics. Chiang Kai-shek's grandson John Chiang, now a KMT legislator, is incensed at recent moves to revise his grandfather's place in history, from the "savior of the people" to a dictator with blood on his hands. Chiang said he may sue the president and the DPP chairman for defamation. Ma, who is still the KMT's best shot at taking back the presidency next year despite being charged with corruption, has argued that the 2/28 Incident was not primarily an ethnic conflict, but rather an uprising against the government that was mishandled by local KMT officials. That's seen by some as an attempt to manipulate history to play down the KMT's guilt and shore up support from his own "deep blue" mainlander base. "For many Taiwanese, [2/28] is a deep wound, not just a political issue," said Steve Chen, director of the Conflict Study and Research Center at Chang Jung Christian University in Tainan. "But Ma is trying to twist it around to protect the old-time 'deep blue' [pro-KMT] population."

This year, even Beijing got into the 2/28 game, backing a book in which Hsieh Hsueh-hung, a prominent Taiwanese communist and anti-KMT activist during the 2/28 Incident, is described as a Chinese nationalist who would have never brooked Taiwanese independence. And on Wednesday, an official in China's Taiwan Affairs Office blasted "splittists" in Taiwan for using the 2/28 anniversary to further an independence agenda. The official said 2/28 was part of the "Chinese people's liberation drive" by "Taiwanese compatriots".

The struggle by politicians and propagandists to spin history in their favor obscures a substantive debate: What is the appropriate justice for a 60-year-old massacre, and when is it time to close a painful chapter of the past? In 1992, the KMT government publicly released a report admitting that KMT troops had killed up to 28,000 people in the incident. That marked a dramatic breakthrough: before martial law was lifted a few years earlier, public discussion of the 2/28 Incident was forbidden. The government also agreed to pay out NT$6 million (more than US$181,000) for each 2/28 victim, and subsequent KMT leaders, as well as Chen, have offered official apologies. For some relatives of 2/28 victims, that's enough - and it's time to move on. "I don't know what else we can get, because the killers are all dead," said Liao Ji-bin, whose grandfather was shot to death and dumped in the sea north of Taipei by KMT military police. "The two parties -- both green and blue -- just want to get credit from 2/28."

But others insist that justice has not yet been served. The major complaint: to date, the perpetrators have not been clearly identified and held accountable -- even if only posthumously. One group representing 2/28 victims wants the legislature to establish a special court for a trial of Chiang Kai-shek and his accomplices. Others cite South Africa, which set up an official truth and reconciliation commission in the post-apartheid era, as a model for what Taiwan still needs to go through to complete a healing process.

Wu Nai-teh, a research fellow at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, said he and other academics are organizing their own, nonpartisan truth and reconciliation committee. A priority: tallying and documenting the unknown number of victims of the White Terror, the long period of anti-communist hysteria and KMT repression -- torture, imprisonment, summary executions, assassinations of the regime's critics -- that followed the 2/28 Incident. Other goals: returning property seized by the government to victims' families, and some kind of "cultural reparations", such as setting aside one day when television and radio stations can only broadcast in the Taiwanese dialect.

Politicians' manipulation of 2/28 may only make it more difficult for Taiwan to put the tragedy behind it. "Many people in Taiwan have a feeling that they are stuck in a vicious struggle between political parties," said Wu. "People feel politicians in Taiwan should tackle real issues instead." But appeals to deal with historical justice in a non-politicized way are probably doomed. Already, some are bickering over numbers: independent legislator Li Ao claimed on Tuesday that the real number killed in the 2/28 Incident was a mere 800. Next year's anniversary will come just before the key presidential election, in which the KMT hopes to take back power after eight years of the independence-minded DPP's rule. As in most big elections in Taiwan, identity politics are bound to loom large: and that means the political wrangling over 2/28 is likely to be more fierce than ever.

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