In Fireproof Moth I wrote about events forty years ago, but even in the euphoria of my being welcomed back to Taiwan in 2003, the gaity was sobered by remembering not only the human cost of what had gone on years earlier but the possibility that days like that could again return. The seeds of democratization planted by Peng Ming-min, Hsieh Tsung-min, and Wei Ting-chao in 1964 and many others through the years began to bear fruit with the end of martial law in 1987, and finally the election of a non-KMT (Nationalist Party) President in 2000. Then, with the election of the KMT's Ma Ying-jeo in 2008, I couldn't get the overused but true words of novelist William Faulkner out of my head:
The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.I do not subscribe to a cyclical view of history or theory of inevitability, and I doubt that Faulkner did either. I think he was acknowledging that the past is always alive in our present. Our experiences of deja vu remind us that hands from the past are always reaching into our present.
Readers may understand my sense of deja vu with certain recent events in Taiwan. The following was my OPED in the Taipei Times on April 29, 2011.
I was one of the signatories to the “Open letter to Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT government” published in the Taipei Times (April 11, page 8), questioning his administration’s decision to investigate former senior Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials over 36,000 supposedly missing government documents.
Presidential Office spokesman Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強) denied in a letter received by academics this week that the investigation was politically motivated, even though it was announced on the eve of former premier Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) registration for the DPP primary for next year’s presidential election.
I confess that Lo’s response to the letter from 34 academics, experts and writers gave me feelings of deja vu.
Deja vu is a French term for the experience of reliving something, or a compelling sense of familiarity with events in the past. I had several such feelings as I read the response.
Instead of speaking about the issues raised in the letter, Lo’s denial rested on his claim that “the Republic of China is a nation based on the rule of law.”
What is at issue is not that the Republic of China has laws, but how those laws are being used for political ends. The first feeling of deja vu took me back to statements of former Alabama governor George Wallace during the US civil rights movement when he tried to defend the practice of racial segregation by claiming that the state was “based on the rule of law,” as if that somehow justified its manipulation of the law to perpetuate segregation.
These were also the words government officials used in response to criticism of monumental human rights abuses during the White Terror era.
My second feeling of deja vu came when I read how the Presidential Office attempted to discredit the signatories of the letter, rather than engage them in serious conversation. I was taken back in time to the defenders of US racial segregation who criticized their critics by claiming that “the trouble is being caused by outside agitators.”
That seems to be the case now with the government’s response to the 34 signatories. I look over that list and I see the names of those who have been Taiwan’s friends for years, who are not ignorant of the country’s history and politics, who have lived for many years in Taiwan, who are Taiwanese and those who are deeply committed to democracy.
Late in life, Wallace said he was sorry for the way he had disregarded blacks and even sought forgiveness from some civil rights leaders.
In 2003, my first trip back to Taiwan since being deported in 1971 for what were termed illegal activities, I appeared on a panel discussing life in Taiwan in the time of the White Terror. After the discussion, a young Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) official came up to me and assured me that “we are not the same KMT we were when you lived in Taiwan.”
I replied: “I hope not.”
However, after the government’s response to the 34 signatories, I still have these feelings of deja vu.
Milo Thornberry is a former missionary professor and the author of a memoir about his days in Taiwan titled Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror.