Friday, December 30, 2011

How Long Until True Democracy?

[After my visits to two prisons when Connie and I visited Taiwan a couple of weeks ago, I wrote the following Op-Ed for the Taipei Times. It was published Friday, December 30, 2011 and is reprinted in full here with full permission.]

How many generations does it take to grow a democracy? I asked this question as I read about Russia and thought of my recent visit to two prisons in Taiwan.
Many are asking the question in Russia today. With Vladimir Putin seeking to extend his rule by subverting democratic elections and other human rights, people have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers.

A couple of weeks ago, the White Terror era was graphically brought to mind when my old friend, Hsieh Tsung-min, and his wife took me to visit The Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial Park, located at the site of the former Detention Center of the Taiwan Garrison Command. I had visited the site in 2008, but not with my friend who had been incarcerated there for many years.

Mr. Hsieh, who on had been arrested a week before me in 1971, took me on a personal tour of the facility that included the cell he occupied. My former wife and I had been charged with “activities unfriendly to the government of the Republic of China”, put under house arrest, and expelled, whereas our friends and colleagues, Hsieh and Wei T’ing-chao were tried in secret after a year and a half in custody, served long sentences, and were horribly tortured. 

The tiny cell where Hsieh had been held was hard for me to look at and almost as hard to view the drawings in the museum of the torture he described in a letter smuggled out in 1972.

All of the inhuman treatment of political prisoners and the climate of terror created by Chiang Kai-shek and his security agencies came rushing back through the forty years as if it were yesterday.

Three days after my visit to Jing-mei, I visited the Taipei Prison where former President Chen Shui-bien is incarcerated. 

Cheryl Lai (賴秀如) graciously accompanied me to translate. When my family returned to Taiwan in 2003 after thirty years, then President Chen had been extraordinarily kind to us. He had taken me aside and said that he was sorry that my activities in Taiwan had caused me to be blacklisted by the U.S. government for nineteen years. On this visit I wanted to thank him.

Being allowed to visit him in prison was a reminder that some things have changed since the beginning of democratization in the 1990s. His buzz cut hair and orange jump suit underlined the different settings and conditions when we had last met in 2003. Neither his smile nor his sense of humor had left him. We both chuckled about Dr. Peng Ming-min coming to visit him and bringing a copy of his then new book, The Perfect Escape, published in 2009.

I came away from the thirty minute meeting with questions that continue to puzzle me as I think of Taiwan’s path:

Newspaper accounts of his trials invariably point out that Chen is the first former president to be indicted and convicted of crime in the history of the ROC. What is rarely said is that he is also the only non-KMT president in the history of the ROC. Is that one of the reasons he is in jail?

Although Chen was President for two terms, the KMT controlled the legislature, the judiciary, and the central government agencies just as they have from the beginning. I wonder how his trials, which according to outside legal observers have said “due process” was so convoluted it is doubtful that the truth of any of the charges can ever be determined. Chen was emphatic that he does not want a pardon; he wants a fair re-trial.

Former President Chen was an unapologetic advocate of an independent Taiwan, which sent political shivers not only through the KMT but also through the leaders in Beijing. Is it possible that this is the real reason Chen is in prison? Chen seems convinced, and I have little reason to doubt it. The manner in which the KMT-dominated government has conducted the former President’s trials is enough to question how much Taiwan’s democracy has grown.

Former presidential adviser Dr. Peng Ming-min heads a new international committee calling for free and fair elections: 
“We have only one sincere but strong demand — that the Jan. 14 elections should be conducted fairly and properly, as fair elections are the minimum requirement for a democratic society and the polls come as a great challenge for Taiwan.”
 It is the same plea he and his two former students, Hsieh Tsung-min and Wei T’ing-chao, made in their Declaration of Formosan Self-Salvation on September 20, 1964, a plea that landed all three in prison charged with treason.

This is not 1964 and much has changed since then, but how the January 14 election is conducted may go far in answering the question in Taiwan, “How many generations does it take to grow a democracy?”

Milo Thornberry, author of Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror (Sunbury Press, 2011). The Chinese edition was released on December 10 by the Asian Culture Company.

1 comment:

OhioTex said...

Thanks for this excellent account, Milo. I'm looking forward with hope-not necessarily with confidence--that the January elections will be conducted fairly.