POLITICAL pluralism in Taiwan has forced the government to reopen the darkest chapter in the island's history - the bloody suppression of a 1947 uprising known as the Feb. 28 Incident, or simply 2-28.
But while publication of an official report on the incident's 45th anniversary does document official mishandling of the affair, critics say it skirts fundamental questions of responsibility.
The incident began just 18 months after China resumed control of the island to end 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. On Feb. 27, 1947, officials beat a Taiwanese woman selling contraband cigarettes. The assault provoked immediate mass protest.
Within weeks, Nationalist military units sent from China acted to crush dissent. In the months that followed, thousands were executed, were killed in random shootings, or simply disappeared.
The Nationalist regime later fled to Taiwan in 1949, after losing a civil war with the Chinese Communists. And for more than four decades, their "line" on the events of 1947 was unmistakably cold war: Communist rebellion had been justly suppressed.
But according to the official revision, the incident is "unfortunate and tragic," the result of "deceitful" administration by Taiwan's then-governor, Gen. Chen Yi.
"He was stubborn and isolated from the people," explains Lai Tse-han, principal author of the official report. "When the Monopoly Bureau tried to stamp out smuggling of cigarettes, this provided an excuse for the Taiwanese to revolt against the Nationalist government."
The official attempt to explain 2-28 has received widespread approval. But many scholars, including several who compiled the report, say blame should go higher - even to the late strongman, Chiang Kai-shek - but will not because the government is unwilling to take such action.
Chiang Kai-shek is a towering figure in the eyes of the Nationalist government," says Jiang Fu-mei, an opposition assemblywoman. "He's beyond reproach, like an emperor."
Ms. Jiang also criticizes the report for "superficial treatment" of events preceding the tragedy, and for ignoring the purge of the native intelligentsia during the military rule that followed. Others believe the incident directly benefited the ruling Kuomintang.
"In a perverse way, it made possible the political structure in Taiwan that existed for 40 some years afterward, it made the economic and social transformation possible," says American sociologist Marshall Johnson. "What Feb. 28 did was establish that there are nondemocratic ground rules for politics, that the consent of the local people is not required."
For decades, Chiang's regime drew ethnic lines, critics say. Education was provided only in Mandarin, not Minanyu, the language of the island's 85 percent Taiwanese majority. And until the 1970s, high quotas reserved the bulk of civil service posts for recent Chinese immigrants, or mainlanders.
Such policies have proved a wellspring of social tension, for which the softening of authoritarian rule since the mid-1980s has provided a vent. The eight-member research body that compiled the 2-28 report saw encouragement of this process as a major focus of their work.
"It would be incorrect to say we didn't have our own agenda," explains 2-28 researcher Huang Fu-san. "Our goal was to produce a report that would reduce tension between mainlanders and native Taiwanese, so in a sense, we had a political motive."
Canadian psychiatrist Lin Tsung-yi says only recovery of victims' remains, compensation to their families, and an official apology will heal 2-28. "Two twenty-eight was worse than the Holocaust," says Mr. Lin, whose father died in the massacre, "because the victims of the Holocaust have had an opportunity to mourn their dead."
Taipei's decision to reexamine the trauma of 2-28 is a product of the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the death six months later of strongman President Chiang Ching-kuo.
Chiang's successor is the island's first native-born head of state, Dr. Lee Teng-hui. Greater democracy is pushing President Lee to address 2-28. "If the first Taiwanese president is unable to provide the answers," says Gallup pollster Ting Ying-yu, "then it will be a negative record for his presidency."