Taiwan shines a light on a dark past

A new president starts a truth and reconciliation commission about the island’s past repression with the hope of improving democracy and ties with China.

AP Photo
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen waves as she delivers an acceptance speech during her inauguration ceremony in Taipei May 20.

In her inaugural speech May 20 as Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen announced a truth and reconciliation commission for her island nation. Her action did not receive as much attention as her comments about ties with China. But an official probe of Taiwan’s own dark past may do far more to help keep the peace with the mainland.

Ms. Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party want the panel to investigate human rights abuses committed under military rule between 1947 and 1987. Taiwan was ruled then by the Kuomintang (KMT), or the nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek, which had fled the mainland as the communists took power. Thousands of Taiwanese were killed by the KMT during that long period of repression, leaving the island divided in its politics and society.

While many victims were acknowledged and memorialized in the 1990s as Taiwan moved to democracy, much of the truth about the perpetrators remains hidden. Tsai hopes Taiwan’s democracy can be improved if it faces “the historical past in the most sincere and cautious manner.”

By uncovering the truth, she said, social wounds can be healed. Political consensus will be easier. Taiwan will be more united and become an active “communicator for peace” in Asia. To achieve that, she will need to make sure that the commission does not become a political tool to bash the current KMT, which lost power in a recent election.

If Taiwan can achieve a measure of reconciliation by this truth-telling process, it may be a model for China in coming to grips with the horrific past of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. In mid-May, the ruling Communist Party barely mentioned the 50th anniversary of the start of that social upheaval, which resulted in the persecution of more than 100 million citizens. 

While the party did allow some historical assessment in the late 1970s, it has since shut down academic research and only allows an official version of the Cultural Revolution to be published. A deeper probe of the party’s mistakes might erode its legitimacy and lead to a challenge to its monopoly on power.

As Tsai said in her speech, taking to heart the mistakes of the past can help propel Taiwan forward. If both nations can admit the errors of their darkest periods, they might be able to someday reconcile. The truth about past wrongs is a first step to restore the bonds that can ensure peace.

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