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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Justice for 228 Massacre victims

Justice for 228 Massacre victims

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As Taiwan commemorated the 69th anniversary of the 228 Massacre, it was heartening to see president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) pledge to pursue transitional justice and declassify more official documents about the Incident. This decision to confront human rights abuses during the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-imposed White Terror era (1949 to 1987) marks an important step in Taiwan’s search for truth and reconciliation in the democratization process.

The pursuit of transitional justice entails more than judicial procedure. By recognizing the rights of victims of the Incident, it seeks to consolidate the existing rule of law and educate future generations about the nation’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

This attempt to revisit cases of human rights violations is bound to be politically and socially divisive, generating intense debate between politicians and communities, but without redressing the collective pain and suffering of the nation. It raises concerns about the new administration’s claim to defend democratic values and norms, as it might even perpetuate the same systematic and cyclical abuses of human rights in the future.

While many nations have implemented truth and reconciliation commissions to cope with the aftermath of a regime transition, Taiwan could set a unique East Asian example on the differences between pluralistic and repressive approaches toward truth-telling. A comparison with China illustrates Taiwan’s concern for rehabilitation and remembrance against the Chinese Communist suppression of traumatic memories.

After the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), the state allocated all political responsibility for the period to a clique called the Gang of Four.

Survivors desired healing for their deep emotional wounds inflicted by the regime. Writer Ba Jin (巴金), who published an essay collection titled Suixiang Lu (Random Thoughts, 隨想錄), witnessed the death of his wife Xiao Shan (蕭珊) in the political turmoil. Ba wondered whether his complicity in the Cultural Revolution was partially responsible for her death. He urged fellow Chinese to share some of the blame for the countless deaths during the Cultural Revolution, rather than using the Gang of Four as moral and political scapegoats.

The victims of the White Terror era appear to have more freedom to speak out than Chinese. Many female activists who survived state-sanctioned harassment during the White Terror era have fought for justice for their deceased relatives.

The Presbyterian Church not only defended the right to self-determination in Taiwan, but also provided shelter for the dangwai (黨外, “outside the party”) opposition — which later became the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. As a symbol of resistance, Presbyterians kept alive the collective memory of democratic struggle and solidified people’s opposition to the authoritarian regime.

A similar struggle can be seen among the Tao people, an Aboriginal community living on Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼). The Nationalists wanted to assimilate Taos into Chinese culture and seized the land for military use. However, Taos remained defiant and revived their Aboriginal identity. The efforts of Aboriginal communities helped to transform Taiwan into a pluralistic democracy.

As both Taiwan and China try to break away from their authoritarian history, past human rights abuses should not be treated by policymakers as a mere reflection of individual suffering. People should take a critical look at these tragic narratives to appreciate the courage of individuals who challenged autocratic rule in a hostile environment.

In Taiwan, China and elsewhere, society has turned to autobiographies and oral histories as the modes of preserving history. These methods were often employed by Confucian academic-officials to promote state-sanctioned values and norms during early imperial dynasties.

The May Fourth Movement in Beijing in 1919 saw a rise in nationalism. Radical intellectuals employed autobiographies to reduce the autonomous self to the collective national body. This was what Hu Shih (胡適) called the “little self” under the “big self.”

Later, the Chiang regime and the Maoist state remolded the autobiographical genre by subordinating the autonomous self to the state’s mobilization.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a flood of memoirs recalling persecutions and hardship suffered by people in Taiwan and China. These memoirs provided an outlet for healing deep psychological wounds associated with political and social upheavals.

Taiwanese activists and Chinese intellectuals, like Ba, were determined to reclaim their alternative voices long submerged under the dominant Nationalist and Communist historiographies. In doing so, they delved into their traumatic past to seek new meanings about the intersection between self and nation.

Taiwan’s democratization process should be a model for other developing nations to deal with a traumatic past. One hopes that Tsai can articulate and develop a holistic approach toward transitional justice soon by launching criminal investigations and prosecutions, reparation initiatives and other civic programs in commemoration of the victims of the 228 Incident.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2016/03/01

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