Though I've passed its doors many times, I've never actually entered the museum. Until yesterday. To many Taiwanese, 228 (the 28th of February) is a deep scar in the face of the island's history. Only in the last 15 years or so has the silence around the tragedy, and its consequences, been broken. Today, 228 is also National Peace Day. A day to remember...
At the end of the Second World War, Taiwan was an international orphan. The Japanese, which had colonised the island for 50 years were forced to leave by war's-end in 1945. It was never clearly stated to whom Taiwan would go to, and at the time, in the spirit of self-determination and decolonisation, many argued that Taiwan should become an independent state. Even so, Allied Command in the Pacific sent the Chinese regime, headed by Chiang Kai Shek, to hold the island and govern it until further determination of Taiwan's future status.
Chiang Kai Shek and his Chinese Nationalist Party(中國國民黨, or Kuomingtang, KMT) thus sent troops, aided by American ships, to garrison Taiwan. At the time, the Civil War between the Communists and Nationalists was just beginning to rage. The Nationalist regime was (in)famous for its corrupt practices, for its collaborations with the under world, for the tacid support by foreign states, as well as for its poor management and government. When the first Chinese troops arrived, the Taiwanese were at first welcoming...since after all, these people were closer in terms of culture and appearance than the Japanese. But then, within months, the malmanagement, corruption and petty criminal and other ugly habits of the Chinese Nationalists became tiresome.
Food prices skyrockets, as the Nationalist government stole and ransacked whatever food and industrial goods there was to ship to China to aid the war against the Communists. Troops paraded the streets, stealing, raping and pillaging whatever and whoever they saw. My grandparents, who owned a bicyle repair shop, out of fear often had to repair bikes for free, while others simply took bikes without paying.
Though Taiwan under the Japanese regime was a colony, the schools, hospitals and industries were invested, law and order was maintained, and the streets were so safe that noone locked their bikes or doors. Many were highly educated under the Japanese regime, and spoke perfect Japanese, as well as the local Taiwanese language. However, when the Chinese came, nobody could understand Mandarin, and many faced difficulties in communicating. Further, highly educated locals who worked in government offices, at railway stations, at hospitals, as lawyers and law enforcers were sacked...to be replaced by the incoming Chinese. Stories are abound about the uneducated Chinese immigrants being unable to operate machinery or to evern read or write...
Taiwanese people were therefore angry and bitter about their treatment as second class citizens under the new Nationalist regime. From research I conducted some years ago, popular slogans like :
"The dogs have gone, but the pigs have come"
(dogs symbolise the Japanese, and pigs symbolising the Chinese...the former being at least loyal and useful at home, whereas the latter is ugly and only sleeps and eats)
"The Americans were at least merciful towards the Japanese. They only dropped the atomic bomb on them, but they dropped the Chinese on us!"
circulated the streets.
Things reached a boiling point at the end of February 1947. A poor woman who sold contraband tabacco in Taipei had her goods confiscated by police, who then went on to beat her horribly. Bystanders who saw the beating came to her aid, and the small incident erupted into demonstrations and strikes. By nightfall of February 27, martial law was declared in Taipei. The next day, when a group of protesters demanded to speak to the local governor, machine guns were erected and pedestrians were mowed down as they neared government buildings. As news of scuffles and killings broke, riots erupted in the north, in the harbour city of Keelung 基隆...which later spread southwards to Shinchu 新竹, Changhwa 彰化, Yunlin雲林, Chiayi嘉義, Tainan 台南and Kaoshiung高雄.....even parts of the eastern seaboard, such as Hualien花蓮, Ilan宜蘭 and Taitung 台東were affected. Soon afterwards, martial law was declared througout the island. Anyone breaking the night curfew would be shot, anyone found collaborating with so-called dissenters were arrested, or simply ‘disappeared’. Train stations, troop garrisons, airports, town squares and stadiums flowed with blood, as they became execution centres overnight. Taiwanese intellectuals, doctors, business people, teachers, artists, politicians; the very pinnacles and leaders of Taiwanese society and culture were all uprooted and cut. Families were ever afraid of the ‘knock on the door’…families were torn apart…false accusations spread… fear soaked this land like an infectious plaque.
By 1949, the Nationalist Party (KMT) lost most of the support in China, while the Chinese Communist Party however came closer and closer. The entire Nationalist government, together with 2 million troops and supporters, had no where else to go, except to flea to the island of Formosa, which it controlled only by mandate. The wave of Chinese invasion brought to this once beautiful island a nightmarish scar which would never heal. The ugly face of the Nationalist regime revealed itself. 228 only marked the beginning of a terrifying era of oppression, indoctrination, political murders, and intellectual and cultural suppression. The so-called ‘White Terror’ age of Martial Law loomed over Taiwan and its people, and would last almost four decades.
No one knows exactly how many fell victim to the White Terror regime of Chiang Kai Shek and his Kuomingtang cronies. Fear silenced dissent and talk of fear. Only until the early 1980s did a group of Taiwanese independence activists, Presbyterian church leaders, business elites dare to demonstrate. At first, they held rallies on the anniversary of 228. These were at firs attended by a few brave souls, but would within years evolve to become a mass social movement, a force the government could no longer ignore. In the process, many democracy activists were arrested and charged with ‘separatist’ crimes. But the crowds demanding justice, demanding better treatment of Taiwanese people kept growing. It was truly people power at work. And it is said that Taiwan’s economic growth, which fueled the growth of a middle intellectual and politically-active class, is representative of the hypothesis that with growing wealth comes growing demands for liberalization and democratisation. By 1987, the government abolished Martial Law, and the democratisation era was ushered in.
Today, Taiwan has evolved from the forgotten and pariah island to become a recognised free and democratic entity. The political activists of yesteryears are today’s political leaders, industrial elites and spiritual guides. Current President Chen Shui Bian, who himself spent a few years in jail for bringing a case against the regime then, received the 2001 Liberal International Freedom Prize. His wife, Wu Shu Jen, was once run over by a truck twice under mysterious circumstances, and has since been disable from the waste down. Vice President Annette Lu spent 12 years in jail for delivering a 45 minute speech on Taiwan’s need to become independent. Countless other unseen and unheard activists, innocents and many more sacrificed their time and lives to build this society.
Though the government has officially apologised for the years of agony and oppression after February 28, 1947, many of the culprits are still at large. The Chinese Nationalist Party has never officially recognised any wrong doing, and argues that the ‘incident’ was the result of unruly mobs. And the Nationalist Party, after being unseated after 55 years of rule in 2000, continues to belittle Taiwanese people and culture, continues to embrace the great dream of unification with China.
I wish to say here what always thought about the lessons from Taiwan’s recent history. Taiwan has come far from the nightmarish days of oppression and terror. Let us not repeat the mistakes of misunderstanding and hatred again. 228 was a dark episode which divided Taiwanese locals and Chinese immigrants alike. Many died, many more bled and shed tears. Yet we were all victims. From this we have walked out from darkness and embraced new life found in a free and democratic society. We are today able to do whatever we wish, say whatever we desire, criticise or support whichever party we want. But we must respect one another, embrace one another’s ideas and viewpoints. Living on this island, we must embrace this land as our own, we must recognise that this is our home, and that this is our people. Only then can we go forward, to live, develop, learn and grow together, and most important of all, do so in peace.
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Taipei 228 Monument: the lightning rod on the top is from Kaoshiung Harbour, the place where the Nationalists landed to begin mass murders; the cubical shapes are supposed to represent the human body, the rough and crude shapes representing a distortion of nature; the four cubicals also represent the four primary racial groups (Aborigines, Chinese, Hakka, Taiwanese) living side by side
mass murders... this one probably at Keelung Harbour. Prisoners often had metal wires sliced through their palms and feet. They were then forced to march together and stand on the dock edge. Troops would then fire the first prisoner, who would drop dead into the sea, while pulling the rest down to drown...