Written by Tabea Muehlbach.
February 28, 2017, marked the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident, a bloody crackdown on Taiwanese civilians by Nationalist troops in 1947. In 2017, Tsai Ing-wen’s spoke for the first time as a president at the central commemorations in the 228 Peace Park in Taipei. Such ceremonies had become a regular annual instalment not long after Lee Teng-hui apologises to the victims in 1995. Previous presidents from both camps have used their speeches to state their commitment to dealing with past violence and announce measures for restoring justice to the victims and their families. At the same time, 228 commemorations have always been a contended space. They are traditionally accompanied by protests and renewed calls to the state for more thorough efforts to deal with Taiwan’s authoritarian past legacies.
Tsai’s words on this day in 2017 were brimming with promise. Thus, with the backing of a legislative Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) majority, her administration could finally make good on the DPP’s long-held wishes for thorough transitional justice mechanisms. Staying faithful to her election promises, Tsai vowed to use the years of her presidency to establish a broad range of measures. Among them was to discuss the future of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, publish an investigation report for both the 228 Incident and the White Terror era, pass transitional justice legislation, and gather and declassify political archives. What Tsai promised here would encompass the 228 Incident, the time of martial law under the Kuomintang (KMT), and in some cases also the years of indigenous suppression. There was a hope to find in “transitional justice” a comprehensive approach to face the past and change the predominant narrative of “only victims, and no perpetrators.” With her calls for truth and a vision of future reconciliation, Tsai set the tone for the years to come.
In 2021 – four years and another three 228 speeches later – it became Tsai’s fifth time to head the 228 Incident commemorations. This took place in front of the Kaohsiung Museum of History. Since her first 228 speech, Tsai had been re-elected for her second presidential term, and the DPP administration had acted upon many promises. The change of location from Taipei to Kaohsiung exemplifies Tsai’s growing confidence in promoting the achievements of transitional justice policies. Still, it also signalled a further departure from a single-focus narrative.
Tsai’s 2021 speech reflects a broad range of achievements. Several institutions dealing with Taiwan’s authoritarian past have been established in the past four years. The flagship is the Transitional Justice Commission (established 2018), which is tasked with promoting transitional justice through various channels, including truth-seeking, exoneration, and the removal of authoritarian symbols. Another long-coveted institution is the Ill-Gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee (2016), investigating the assets of the KMT and affiliated organisations. The Political Archives Act (2019) has facilitated the compilation and declassification of martial law era archival material, unearthing previously inaccessible documents. The National Human Rights Museum (2018) was tasked with human rights education. As the latest addition, the National Human Rights Commission was established under the Control Yuan in 2020 as a specially dedicated organ to promote human rights.
Further, Tsai delivered an apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples on behalf of the government on August 1, 2016 and has since created the chairmanship of the Presidential Office Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee (2016). This offers a platform to discuss matters of indigenous justice. These developments have happened after a bumpy start for transitional justice work. The legislative processes and implemented measures are still regularly stirring KMT wrath, especially when it comes to the modus operandi of the Transitional Justice Commission.
The commemorations of Taiwan’s violent past are changing over the years. First, time is limited for bringing justice to the ageing victims and bereaved families. Rehabilitation-centred measures such as compensation and several waves of exonerations are taking centre stage, targeting those most immediately concerned. Under the Tsai administration, truth-seeking has become a central mission, which contributes to more thorough rehabilitation and helps “determine responsibilities” – a recurring topic of Tsai’s early 228 speeches. The newly established institutions provide channels to conduct such investigations. The need to speak up about the past and break taboos have also featured prominently in Tsai’s speeches, intended to promote non-recurrence of violence, aiming to create human rights awareness “part of our government’s DNA.”
From another perspective, the promotion of “transitional justice” discourse has further benefits. Transitional justice has offered a still marginal yet powerful narrative to talk about Taiwan’s shared past of hardship, the potential of the present moment to make changes, the hope for a better future and advocating for a unified society still split along various lines. Transitional justice has also become a means to connect Taiwan with the world by recalling and adopting trajectories that transitional justice has taken in other countries across the globe.
The umbrella approach of transitional justice has drawn connections between various historical events and bundled them in a unified narrative. By 2021, Tsai had increasingly departed from 228 centred speeches and instead emphasised the vital necessity of the many facets of transitional justice for sustaining democracy. More explicitly than ever before, February 28 has become a symbolic day to confirm democracy and human rights values. And, as Tsai states in her 2021 speech, the time to “write our own history” has come.
Under Tsai Ing-wen, transitional justice work has experienced unprecedented institutionalisation, and the efforts are already making a difference for many concerned. However, not all promises and deadlines have been met, and new measures are still widely questioned and discussed. So far, the approach of the Tsai administration has not yet managed to change unsatisfactory past narratives completely. Moreover, as in preceding decades, the conflicts stirred by different interpretations of the roles of law, justice and politics in transitional justice will preoccupy people from all walks of life for a long time. Many open questions remain, such as what the Transitional Justice Commission can achieve in the additional year it is hoping to be granted? Moreover, one can ask what follow-up work would look like? Finally, there is the question of whether the narrative of “no perpetrators”—a topic still approached with caution—will finally receive a significant revision and the consequences thereof. Three more years under the current administration will bring enough time to deepen these discussions. The current transitional justice project still has a long way to go until Tsai delivers her eighth and last 228 speech as a president in 2024.
Tabea Muehlbach is a PhD student at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Freiburg University. Her research interest is transitional justice in Taiwan.
This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan