Taiwan grapples with divisive history as new president prepares for power

For some, inaugural president Chiang Kai-shek was a liberating hero, but for others, he was a brutal dictator.

An honour guard in front of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall in Taipei. It's disk and the sky is blue.
Honour guards lower the Taiwan flag at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei [File: Louise Delmotte/AP Photo]

Taipei, Taiwan – Even as Taiwan prepares for the inauguration of its eighth president next week, it continues to struggle over the legacy of the island’s first president, Chiang Kai-shek.

To some, Chiang was the “generalissimo” who liberated the Taiwanese from the Japanese colonisers. To many others, he was the oppressor-in-chief who declared martial law and ushered in the period of White Terror that would last until 1992.

For decades, these duelling narratives have divided Taiwan’s society and a recent push for transitional justice only seems to have deepened the fault lines. Now, the division is raising concern about whether it might affect Taiwan’s ability to mount a unified defence against China, which has become increasingly assertive in its claim over the self-ruled island.

“There is a concern when push comes to shove if the civilians work well with the military to defend Taiwan,” said historian Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang of the University of Missouri in the United States.

On February 28, 1947, Chiang’s newly-arrived Kuomintang (KMT) troops suppressed an uprising by Taiwan natives, killing as many as 28,000 people in what became known as the February 28 Incident. In the four-decade-long martial law era that followed, thousands more perished.

This traumatic history met its official reckoning in 2018, when the Taiwan government set up its Transitional Justice Commission modelled after truth and reconciliation initiatives in Africa, Latin America and North America to redress historical human rights abuses and other atrocities.

People gathered in Liberty Square to remember the February 28 Incident. They are in front of a ceremonial archway. There are some canopies in front.
People attend the commemoration of the February 28 Incident in Taipei [Violet Law/Al Jazeera]

When the commission concluded in May 2022, however, advocates and observers said they had seen little truth and hardly any reconciliation.

Almost from the first days of the commission, the meting-out of transitional justice became politicised across the blue-versus-green demarcation that has long defined Taiwan’s sociopolitical landscape, with blue representing KMT supporters and green the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

A recently published anthology entitled Ethics of Historical Memory: From Transitional Justice to Overcoming the Past explains how the way Taiwanese remember the past shapes how they think about transitional justice. And as that recollection is determined by which camp they support, each champions their own version of Taiwan’s history.

“That’s why transitional justice seems so stagnant now,” explained Jimmy Chia-Shin Hsu, research professor at the legal research institute Academia Sinica who contributed to and edited the book. “Whatever truth it uncovers would be mired in the blue-green narrative.”

A non-partisan view, Hsu said, is to credit the DPP with codifying transitional justice and Lee Teng-hui, the first democratically elected KMT president, with breaking the taboo on broaching the February 28 Incident.

The past shaping the future

In February, Betty Wei attended the commemoration for the February 28 incident for the first time and listened intently to the oral history collected from the survivors. Wei, 30, said she wanted to learn more about what happened because her secondary school textbook had brushed over what many consider a watershed event in a few cryptic lines, and many of her contemporaries showed little interest.

“In recent years the voices pushing for transitional justice have grown muted,” Wei told Al Jazeera. “A lot of people in my generation think the scores are for previous generations to settle.”

Statues of former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek lined up in a park. Two of the statues in front show him seated. They are painted red. Some behind are standing. They are white or bronze.
The Transitional Justice Committee recommended the relocation of Chiang Kai-shek statues from public areas, but many remain [File: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA]

In Taiwan, the past is never past, and rather it is fodder for new fights.

As the DPP gears up for an unprecedented third consecutive term, the unfinished business of removing the island’s remaining statues of Chiang has resurfaced as the latest front in what Yang, the historian, described to Al Jazeera as “this memory war”.

More than half of the initial 1,500 monuments have been taken down over the past two years, with the remaining statues mostly on military installations.

Yang argues that is because the top brass rose through the ranks under martial law and many still regard Chiang as their leader, warts and all. For them, toppling the statues would be an attack on their history.

The statues embody “the historical legacy the military wants to keep alive,” Yang said. “That’s a source of tension between the military and the DPP government.”

On the eve of William Lai Ching-te taking his oath as the island’s next president, Taiwanese will for the first time mark the “White Terror Memorial Day” on May 19, the day when martial law was declared in 1949.

While it is clear Taiwanese have promised to never forget, whom and how to forgive has become far murkier.

As the former chairman of the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation, the first NGO advocating for the cause, Cheng-Yi Huang lauded the government’s move to take over the KMT’s private archives in recent years but lamented there had been too little truth-seeking so far.

For example, under the February 28 Incident Disposition and Compensation Act, Huang said many have chosen to stay silent about their complicity because only victims get compensation.

However, Taiwan’s tumultuous history means the line between victim and victimiser is rarely clear-cut.

Chiang Kai-shek pictured in 1955. He is wearing a military uniform with a long cape. Others in uniforms are walking behind him. They are leaving a temple.
Chiang Kai-shek (centre) in 1955. Known as ‘Generalissimo’, he led a brutal military dictatorship that only ended in 1992 [Fred Waters/AP Photo]

By digging into military archives, Yang has shed light on how Chinese were kidnapped and pressed into service by the KMT in the last years of the Chinese Civil War. Those who tried to flee were tortured and even murdered. And the native Taiwanese who rose up to resist KMT’s suppression were persecuted as communists.

“Under martial law, the military was seen as an arm of the dictatorship, but they were also victims of the dictator’s regime,” Yang told Al Jazeera. “The transitional justice movement has missed the opportunity to reconcile Taiwanese society with the military.”

To Hsu, Beijing’s belligerence demands Taiwanese of all stripes find a common cause.

“As we’re facing the threat from the Chinese Communist Party, it’s imperative that we unite in forging a collective future,” said Hsu, to a standing-room-only book talk during the Taipei International Book Exhibition in late February.

“And how we remember our past will shape this future of ours.”

Source: Al Jazeera