TDB Vol. 2 No. 1: BERSIH 2.0: More than Just Street Protests

TDB Vol. 2 No. 1: BERSIH 2.0: More than Just Street Protests

Maria Chin Abdullah, head of the recipient of the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award, shares her views on democracy and the role of civic groups with Taiwanese NGOs. Olivia Yang reports.

 

“We are trying to define democracy in Malaysia, to say that it is all right for you to speak up, it’s all right to not fear them. Because once we show fear, we back down, we compromise.”

BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah is speaking at a discussion with Taiwan NGOs in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2017. The Malaysia-based coalition had just been presented with the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award earlier that day, and proceeded to share her experiences with Taiwan NGOS on how civil societies in Asia advocate for fair and clean elections.

While BERSIH 2.0 is well-known for its sea of bright yellow-clad protesters in the streets of major cities around the world, rallies are not the only approach the coalition takes in expanding civil political participation throughout Malaysia.

“At any time now we can confidently say we can bring 100,000 people to the streets, but it took us 10 years to build up this momentum,” says Maria Chin Abdullah. “The other thing we are saying to the government is that you have to respect rule of law. We are actually challenging them.”

To build more awareness among Malaysians on the importance of civil participation in public affairs, BERSIH 2.0 has come up with new strategies. These include organizing electoral observations, forming a Delineation Action and Research Team (DART), and holding boot camps that provide education on the basics of democracy, elections and mass mobilization.

But the coalition’s efforts have not all been carried out smoothly.

Maria Chin Abdullah says that “as we get more sophisticated in reaching out to people, the state also gets more sophisticated in trying to counter us.”

BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah at the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award Ceremony. (Photo: 黃謙賢 / TFD).

Pushback from the government is not unexpected; however BERSIH 2.0 is also seeing frustration from the civil society. Sometimes people want quick solutions to changing the government, which is very difficult due to the “uneven” system, says the BERSIH 2.0 chairperson.

“People think that just because they vote they should get the results they want. But it doesn’t work that way.”

While elections in Taiwan are comparatively clean and fair, challenges like vote-buying still exist.

Huang Shiow-duan is a standing board member at Transparency International Chinese Taipei (TICT) and chairperson of Citizen Congress Watch (CCW), a coalition of NGOs that monitors the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Parliament.

During the conversation with BERSIH 2.0, Huang gave examples of how the organizations she is affiliated with are fighting corruption in the island-nation.

From 2013 to 2014, TICT collaborated with the Tainan District Prosecutors Office to produce a series of anti-corruption animated education videos. Huang says it is crucial to start anti-corruption education from a young age, and children can also be more persuasive in communicating information to older generations.

CCW, on the other hand, supervises Taiwan’s parliamentarians by broadcasting legislative sessions and making legislative documents accessible to the public. It also evaluates legislators once every six months and the evaluation report is made public so that civil society, along with legislators, are aware of their performance.

“I don’t think the government will clean itself. It needs supervision. That’s why we need to create a system of separation of power,” says Huang.

Compared to TICT and CCW, Watchout Co. is a younger NGO founded in 2013 with a mission of lowering the threshold of political participation. Being a media platform, Watchout empowers the people by sharing facts and informed opinions in a way that is easy to consume. It also utilizes social media and technology to oversee the government.

But echoing Maria Chin Abdullah, Yu Chih-hao, design and technology lead at Watchout, says that “empowering the people is the ultimate solution — but it’s the toughest solution.”

The main challenges Watchout faces is coming up with methods to free people’s time and minds, and getting other media outlets to distribute its information so the facts flow between different eco-chambers.

Yu nevertheless emphasizes the importance of democratic countries defining their own democracy and learning from each other.

“Practicing democracy in Taiwan is our lifeline,“ says Yu. “It’s one of the factors that differentiate Taiwan from China, and it’s one of the factors that get Taiwan international recognition and respect.”

“Democracy does not happen overnight. Democracy takes time,” says Maria Chin Abdullah. “We are struggling. We are backsliding. But I still believe in the power of the people.”

Top photo:  BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah speaking at a discussion with Taiwan NGOs in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2017. (Photo: Olivia Yang).

 

TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

There has been much discussion about the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice since it was passed in early December. The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation has come up with a Q&A to respond to the myths and controversies concerning the newly passed law and to help put transitional justice in its proper Taiwanese context.

 

1. Why does the transitional justice concerned in the Act only target the Kuomintang (KMT)? This is none other than political vendetta!

Transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their violations of the basic rights of the people and their abuse of state institutions and power. The KMT was the sole ruling party during the Martial Law period and where decision-making and discussion of many policies took place. It is difficult to undertake the project of Taiwan’s transitional justice and rectify the wrongs committed during the Martial Law period without making the party the target.

Post-democratization governments certainly are not immune to taking illegitimate actions that are against the principles of justice, but people living in a democratic society are more aptly equipped with rights guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by mechanisms such as separation of power and checks and balances. When their rights are violated, they have access to both institutional and non-institutional ways to demand a response from the government (appeal, court, petition or social protest).

What “transitional justice” deals with is the political persecution committed before democratization.

2. Taiwan’s transitional justice is purely a political scheme against waishengren and to de-Sinicize Taiwan?

In fact, according to statistical information derived from the number of people receiving state compensation, the percentage of waishengren political victims in the White Terror cases was actually a lot greater than the percentage of ethnic groups in Taiwan’s total population. The case of Shandong exiled students is an example that involved a large number of waishengren. Clearing up the history helps solve certain myths surrounding the ethnic divisions and antagonism. Due to its idiosyncratic history, Taiwan’s democratic transformation was intertwined with a process of change in people’s national identity; the two thereby have often been conflated but should actually be looked into with extra caution.

The core of transitional justice, however, is about how a society faces its history, about making those denying historical traumas and mistakes understand that it would come at a cost. Transitional justice is a task with concrete goals to achieve.

3. Chiang Kai-shek had made contributions to the country as well. Why can’t his contributions be displayed alongside his misdeeds? If not for him, Taiwan would have been taken over by the People’s Republic of China long ago and very likely be overwhelmed by the storm of the Cultural Revolution.

As said in the answer to the first question, transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their past violations, not to write biographies for historical figures. Those political parties and individuals who harbor special feelings for Chiang Kai-shek can continue their support for him.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric of “safeguarding Taiwan (against Chinese aggression)” cannot explain why Chiang perpetuated Martial Law rule even after his control over Taiwan (and offshore islands) was consolidated in the mid-1950s (after the Korean War) and why he targeted the communists, the tangwai/dangwai people and overseas Taiwanese independence activists as “three-in-one enemy” starting in the 1970s. “Protecting the island from falling under communist control” was a propaganda slogan for the ruler to rationalize his use of political repression and carrying out of comprehensive social surveillance during the Martial Law period.

4. The government has been compensating political victims since the 1990s. What else is to be done 30 years after Martial Law was lifted?

Bound by the National Security Act and Constitutional Interpretation No. 272, before the passage of the Act on Transitional Justice, the political victims, despite receiving compensation, were not cleared of their convictions and criminal records, seized properties were not returned, and the KMT archives during the years when the country was ruled by the party-state have not been made public. Even now, we still do not know exactly how many political victims there were during the White Terror. Why were they persecuted? Who should be held accountable? How extensive was the persecuting system? What, if any, have the persecutors done to redeem themselves? What was wrong with Martial Law and the constitutional institutions? The state has to face its own past deeds. Holding the repressive system accountable is much more than simply pointing fingers at Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo; a lot more needs to be done.

▶︎ See also: TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

Discovered in the 1990s, the Liuzhangli graveyard in Taipei was the burial ground for hundreds of White Terror victims. The cemetery was designated a municipal cultural landmark in 2015 (Photo: TATR).

5. The amendments to the Labor Standards Act have been stalled and same-sex marriage legalization (seemingly) mothballed; is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party pushing for transitional justice just to divert public attention?

What we need to do is to work together for the realization of social justice of various kinds rather than elbowing each other out. The passage of the Act on Transitional Justice does not mean that transitional justice has been achieved. The Transitional Justice Promotion Committee has to be overseen and kept from descending into formalism. We need to take this historical opportunity and build a bridge between the past and the future in our era.

6. Granted, the task of transitional justice should be done, but don’t we need to have a sense of proportion by first working hard on improving the economy?

Most of the living political victims are aged. This is probably the only time period in which we live alongside these people. When else but now are we to rectify the past wrongs for them and grant them their historical status? There are things that cannot be bought with money: lost youth, freedom and lives. They could have had a different life, if only Taiwanese society had been free from the decades-long suppression and suffocation. It’s hard to weigh the possibilities they had once owned for their worth, let alone against money.

7. Those political victims were not all innocent. Some of them were underground Chinese Communist Party members who were supposed to be executed.

No one would object to redressing the wrongful charges against the innocent, but the greatest challenge of transitional justice precisely lies in questioning the legitimacy and legality of the laws that the “criminals” had broken during the Martial Law era. How did the state violate the people’s basic rights and deprive the people of their rights under the pretext of maintaining social stability and national security via court-martial and laws? How do we draw the boundary between national security and protection of personal rights? This is a question in need of serious debate even in a democratic society. We can choose to forget and pretend nothing of the sort happened, or we can choose to face the history. Those interested in the debate can find a related extensive discussion on the website of the third constitutional court simulation (in Chinese) that was held in November, 2016.

8. Why are Indigenous peoples and “comfort women” not included in the Act?

Those who support the redressing of historical wrongs are supposed to also be in support of the restoring of justice for Indigenous people and for “comfort women.” Taking other countries’ cases as examples, these two groups deserve separate legislative bills for delicate and thorough handling of their demands, rather than being squeezed with other groups into the same piece of cloth.

The persecution that Indigenous people have been subjected to span different regimes, which requires a more comprehensive examination and solution that goes to the root of the problems stemming from political institutions and existing laws. If not, the same kind of persecution would only reappear in different forms. The issue of “comfort women,” on the other hand, requires the government to negotiate with the Japanese government and demand compensation and an apology.

It is hard to imagine these different forms of violence that require different routes for restoring justice could be dealt with by the same set of rules. Only through different legal and institutional frameworks can these issues be allowed more room for detailed and practical solutions to these complicated problems.

9. The constitutionality of the Act on Transitional Justice is in question?

Whether a law is unconstitutional is up to the grand justices to decide. Insofar as it has not been ruled unconstitutional, a law passed by the legislature is nevertheless effective.

Questions have been raised as to whether the jurisdiction assigned to the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee oversteps the jurisdiction of the judiciary, such as Article 14 of the Act granting the Committee the right to investigate, and Article 15 and Article 16 allowing the Committee to seal documents and materials regarded as evidence and to require those under investigation to speak the truth. According to Constitutional Interpretation No. 613 concerning the operation of an independent agency, the constitutionality of the operation of an independent agency will be upheld “if important matters are determined by means of hearings, if the performance of the execution of its mission is made transparent and public for the purpose of public supervision,” and with the existing “authority of the Legislative Yuan to supervise the operation of the independent agency through legislation and budget review.” Article 19 prohibits damaging of political archives on pain of imprisonment; however, the one who initiates the investigation should still be the prosecutors, as how the offenses of destruction, abandonment, and damage of property are governed in the Criminal Code.

In general, the Committee will be operating in the same way as other independent agencies (e.g. the National Communications Commission and the Fair Trade Commission), exercising its jurisdiction independently, unaffected by the change of premier and having the power of administrative enforcement (one could refer to the Administrative Execution Act for an understanding of how the power is governed). However, the Committee should be as prudent and transparent as possible when exercising these powers, with the Committee making critical decisions by consensus.

10. What is transitional justice anyway? What should be done to achieve it?

Transitional justice” used to be a professional term developed by international academia to refer to how a society that has achieved democratic transition faces and deals with mass human rights violations committed in the past by the state. It has therefore also been termed as “dealing with past wrongs.” The main objective of transitional justice is “Never Again” and to make up for the past sufferings of our fellow countrymen and -women. The core objectives of transitional justice are: seeking the truth, compensating the victims, restoring justice, attaining social reconciliation and preventing the return of state violence.

How is transitional justice done then? The more commonly seen mechanisms include (1) trials and vetting (holding the persecuting system and persecutors accountable); (2) setting up a Truth Committee and sorting and making public the related archives (the state needs to recognize what mistakes it has done); (3) compensating the victims and their families and restoring their reputation; (4) rebuilding the memory (removing/remaking symbols of authoritarianism and cautioning future generations against the return of authoritarianism through museums, memorials and textbooks). Every country has its own distinct way of carrying out transitional justice under different historical/political contexts; there is no “correct way.”

This piece originally appeared in Chinese. Translation by Alison Hsiao

TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

Nearly a year since a draft bill was introduced in the Legislative Yuan, the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice was passed on Dec. 5, marking an important step in the country’s effort to shed light on and redress past injustices committed during the Martial Law period. Alison Hsiao looks at the Act and its implications.

 

At 21:09 on Dec. 5, Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan struck the gavel and announced the passage of the “Act on Promoting Transitional Justice” (促進轉型正義條例) on the legislative floor, signifying a new beginning for the country’s transitional justice.

Different versions of the bill had been proposed and heated debates on various issues — from the time span covered and the authority granted to the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee to the decision to make indigenous groups’ transitional justice a separate issue not included in the Act — were stoked in the year-long period since the draft bill was introduced in the legislature last year.

The Act that cleared the legislature on Dec. 5 put an end to the battle — temporarily, however, as the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) indicated right after the passage that it would petition for an interpretation of the Constitution on the grounds that some clauses of the Act are unconstitutional.

Covering the period from Aug. 15, 1945 to Nov. 6, 1992, when Martial Law was lifted on the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu (five years later than on Taiwan proper), the Act will see the setup of an independent, nine-people Transitional Justice Promotion Committee overseen by the Executive Yuan.

The Committee will be tasked with five main missions: opening up political archives, erasing symbols of authoritarianism and keeping the sites of past injustice, redressing judicial wrongs, restoring the historical truth and promoting social reconciliation, and settling and re-channeling ill-gotten party assets.

Beside the party assets settlement that has already been undertaken, the task that is expected to stir up future debate is the erasing of “symbols that are nostalgic or in memorial of the authoritarian ruler(s) in public buildings and spaces,” written in Article 5 of the Act. It has already been interpreted by some local media as a directive to conduct a house-cleaning removal of references to “Zhong-zheng” (Chiang Kai-shek’s given name) in the names of schools, places and streets. That claim has since been rebutted by Minister of the Interior Yeh Jiunn-rong, who said that it will be up to the Committee to decide.

The Act also stipulates that any institution, group or people evading, refusing or hindering investigations launched under the Act, and political parties and their affiliated organizations refusing to return political archives (determined as relevant by the Committee) to the state will be subject to repeatable penalties of NT$100,000 to NT$500,000 and NT$1 million to NT$5 million respectively. Those who have disposed of, destroyed, damaged or concealed political archives, or have attempted to do so, will be liable to punishment of no more than five years behind bars.

Transitional Justice with Taiwanese Characteristics’

The major breakthrough has been praised by the Taiwan Association of Truth and Reconciliation (TATR), a non-governmental group that has advocated for transitional justice since 2008 and which was directly involved in the legislative process leading to the Act. TATR has lauded the annulling of Article 9 (Paragraph 2) of the National Security Act — passed less than a month before the lifting of the Martial Law in 1987 in Taiwan proper — that prevented political victims convicted of criminal charges by a court martial during the authoritarian period from appealing in the post-martial-law time.

“The Act has made concrete advances on both rectifying past injustices and truth seeking, particularly the former,” the association said on Facebook. “This is a transitional justice model with Taiwanese characteristics.”

Article 6 of the new legislation now demands that the right to appeal for re-investigation be returned to those who “had been subjected to criminal sentencing — resulting in punishments, rehabilitative measures and confiscation of properties — that had violated the constitutional order of liberal democracy and the principle of fair trial during the authoritarian rule.” The cases should not be bound by Article 9 of the National Security Act, the article says, adding that redressing judicial wrongs can be achieved by “identifying the persecutors and holding them accountable, restoring and compensating for the damages to the victims or their families’ reputation and rights, and setting history right and making public the judicial wrongs.”

Two scenarios are considered in Article 6.

Those who have been compensated or had their rights re-instituted in accordance with the February 28 Incident Disposition and Compensation Act (1995) (二二八事件處理及賠償條例), the Compensation Act for Wrongful Trials on Charges of Sedition and Espionage during the Martial Law Period (1998) (戒嚴時期不當叛亂暨匪諜審判案件補償條例) and the Act Governing the Recovery of Damage of Individual Rights during the Period of Martial Law (2000) (戒嚴時期人民受損權利回復條例), shall see the related convictions annulled and criminal records expunged, according to the Act, without the need to go through judicial proceedings.

Rendered criminal-record-free without the need to go to court, they can nevertheless still make use of the reinstated right to appeal, TATR President Yeh Hung-ling said. Such individuals can now appeal the convictions of offenses of sedition or treason under Martial Law in order to receive compensation or to secure the return of properties seized as accessory penalty (which was supplementary to the principal penalty of imprisonment or death). Such appeals were not possible before, as the Act Governing the Recovery of Damage of Individual Rights during the Period of Martial Law (Article 4) restricts the right to demand the return of or compensation for confiscated properties to those who are “found innocent.” This very article was literally empty because, when coupled with Article 9 of the National Security Act, no acquittal was possible without the right to appeal in court.

The second scenario involves those cases not covered by the three compensation acts. The new legislation demands they be redressed in the same way if approved by the Committee through a review launched upon the petition of the claimant or initiated by the Committee itself.

Those rare cases are the “controversial” ones, the association said. They include that of Voyue Tosku (杜孝生), a Tsou Aborigine who received a 17-year prison sentence in 1954 for “corruption,” and of Li Ma-dou (李媽兜), whose conviction of sedition/treason “survives the legal review under current laws and rules of evidence” — meaning that he did “by violence commit an overt act” with intent to destroy the state or use illegal means to overthrow the government according to the Criminal Code, and is thereby not compensable under the Compensation Act for Wrongful Trials on Charges of Sedition and Espionage during the Martial Law Period.

The claimants in the second scenario also have the right to appeal in court if their claims are rejected by the Committee, the Act states.

Milestone’

Putting an end to the applicability of Article 9 of the National Security Act is a “milestone” for Taiwan’s transitional justice since the lift of the Martial Law 30 years ago, the TATR said.

“We ask that the Democratic Progressive Party government exercise extra prudence when choosing the members of the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee, and attend to all the indispensable aspects of transitional justice — truth, justice, compensation for and rectification of wrongs, and reconciliation — with a holistic vision,” it added, stressing the need to pass the bill of political archives that has been waiting in the wings of the Legislative Yuan to further clear up the past.

President Tsai Ing-wen, on the next day of the legislative achievement, also called the passage of the Act “a milestone of Taiwan’s freedom and democracy.”

“I’ve said on the day of the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident this year that the goal of transitional justice is reconciliation, not political vendetta; this is the principle that the government will insist on, as only when the people face the past together can the country move toward the future in unity,” she said.

The president said she “looks forward to the advent of the day when the work of transitional justice is complete and no political party in Taiwan would any longer need to bear the brunt of the country’s criticism against past authoritarian rule.”

“People would no longer harbor hatred against each other, trapped in painful historical memory. Taiwan will transform into a different country, and our democracy will also take a step forward,” she said.

President Tsai Ing-wen addresses victims and families of victims of political repression under Martial Law on International Human Rights Day 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 21: Lee Ming-che Sentencing a Warning to Others (Analysis)

TDB Vol. 1 No. 21: Lee Ming-che Sentencing a Warning to Others (Analysis)

More than the unfair treatment of a man who did nothing wrong, today’s sentencing is another reminder that China has no intention of playing by international rules. It is also a warning that Beijing has cast a much wider net to silence critics and those, Chinese and not, who propose an alternative system of governance in China. J. Michael Cole looks at the significance of today’s ruling.

 

The Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court in Hunan Province today sentenced Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che to five years’ imprisonment for “subversion of state power” and suspended his political rights for two years, a ruling that Taiwan’s Presidential Office and rights organizations worldwide decried as “unacceptable.”

Lee was arrested in March upon entering China via Macau. After disappearing for several months, he resurfaced in court in Hunan Province in September, where he was accused of collaborating with others in China and on social media to “attack the Chinese government” and promote “Western-style democracy.”

Peng Yuhua, a Chinese citizen who was accused of working with Lee in “organizing, planning and taking action to subvert national authority and overthrow the socialist system,” was sentenced to seven years in prison.

After today’s ruling, Lee said he would not appeal.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have described the sentencing as “absolutely outrageous” and a “warning signal” to other activists. In a statement, Taiwan’s Presidential Office wrote that “it is regrettable that the Lee Ming-che case has seriously damaged cross-strait relations and especially challenged Taiwanese people’s persistence and ideals for democracy and freedom.”

Lee is the first Taiwanese national to be sentenced for such a “crime” in China under the new National Security Law which passed on July 1, 2015 and which stipulates that preserving the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China “is a shared obligation of all the Chinese people, including compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.”

The court’s suspension of Lee’s political rights is no doubt meant to underscore Beijing’s contention that the new National Security Law applies to Taiwanese nationals (whom it regards as PRC citizens) regardless of where the alleged crimes are committed. We should note here that the said crimes Lee is accused of having committed occurred primarily online.

The heavy sentence is also meant to send a loud signal to other activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere that they, too, can now be apprehended and convicted for “crimes endangering national security” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship regime” as (loosely) defined in the Law, irrespective of where the said crimes have been committed, both physically and online.

The heavy sentence is also meant to send a loud signal to other activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere that they, too, can now be apprehended and convicted for “crimes endangering national security” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship regime” as (loosely) defined in the Law, irrespective of where the said crimes have been committed, both physically and online. This development will no doubt have a chilling effect on activists, academics, journalists, officials and artists who may fear that they have, at some point, promoted through their work or personal discussions online notions of democracy or sovereignty that can be construed as criminal in China.

Moreover, the existence of the Law, and now the precedent set by Lee’s arrest and sentencing, provides the means and empowerment for local officials to act independently and to disappear a suspect into the Chinese legal system, out of which it has become increasingly difficult to emerge — even for foreign passport holders. In other words, and as likely was the case with Lee, the arrest and sentencing of non-PRC nationals can now occur without a directive from, or even the knowledge of, the central government.

By targeting Taiwanese nationals and others who are engaged in the promotion of human rights and democracy, Beijing hopes to deter their engagement with likeminded elements in China and limit their ability to cooperate with them in defying CCP authoritarian rule. Thus, besides scaring off outside forces, the move also seeks to further isolate human rights activists in China, who under new rules governing foreign NGOs have already been having a tougher time connecting with the outside world.

More than the unfair treatment of a man who did nothing wrong, today’s sentencing is yet another reminder that China has no intention of playing by international rules. It is also a warning that it has now cast a much wider — and extraterritorial — net in its attempt to silence critics and those, Chinese and not, who propose an alternative, more liberal and democratic system of governance in China.

Photo: Chuyện Việt Nam

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

Following a nine-day workshop in Taipei, a group of young democracy activists from around Asia elaborated various strategies to tighten regional cooperation and facilitate information-sharing in times of democratic recession. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

At the conclusion of a nine-day Asia Young Leaders for Democracy (AYLD) program hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) in Taipei earlier this month, young participants from around Asia issued a document that is known as the AYLD Declaration. Covering a wide range of issues, the declaration was drafted by the 20 participants, most of whom come from countries that face many challenges in achieving or sustaining democracy.

In itself, the fact that a declaration was issued by a group of young people with different national backgrounds can be hailed as an accomplishment. As many of us know, consensus is rarely the outcome of official region-wide conferences.

Still, adopting a declaration that could be approved by all through a democratic process nevertheless proved challenging, which the young democracy advocates knew all too well from their own experiences back home, where efforts to discredit democracy have been gaining momentum. As the democracy-skeptic camp often argues, efficiency, ostensibly key for development, often suffers from long democratic procedures; so if a trade-off at the expense of democracy is the inevitable cost, then so be it.

Consensus-building isn’t easy, even among ardent supporters of democracy.

“Democracy needs time,” the participants admitted. And as if to prove this, they requested more time to arrive at a final draft of their declaration. Notwithstanding the delays, the young participants were keenly aware that the case for an alternative model to democracy — autocratic governance — is based on a “false promises of economic prosperity and national glory (Clause 1).”

While some efficiency must be sacrificed for the sake of democracy, the “best solution” is not, and never was, what democracy is about, as one participant said during the discussions. Another cited Winston Churchill, who once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

As democracy is said to be in recession with the rise of “illiberal democracy,” the young democracy leaders responded to the trend with an emphasis on fighting disinformation and extremism (Clause 2 & 3), which serve as incubators for and are the product of illiberal democracy, respectively.

The declaration also contains much evidence that the young democracy leaders fully understand what democracy is not: majoritarianism with the majority having all the say. Votes may be necessary, but deliberation and compromise among groups and people, with members of a program or a community having equal rights and access, are indispensable.

The rights of minority groups and political participation have to be guaranteed (Clause 4 & 5): “All human beings, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age, language, religion, social class, sexual orientation and gender identity, deserve equal rights and equal dignity,” the declaration says, following a debate on whether “women’s political participation” should enjoy a highlighted focus with a separate clause.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

“Democracy needs time” could also be taken to mean that the realization of true democracy is a long haul that requires people, especially the young, to resolutely and actively engage in monitoring, maintaining and improving the democracy agendas in their respective countries.

The task, however, can be particularly daunting for those who live in countries where governments wield power without proper checks and where people in general are ignorant about (or nonchalant) human rights violations. Inter-country and regional alliances and cooperation are therefore essential for activists and dissidents for the sharing of hands-on experience and solidarity building.

To this end, the 2017 AYLD participants came up with three action plans to strengthen the network they creatdd during the program and the principles they have vowed to uphold in the declaration.

The Asia News for Democracy has been set up and will serve as a platform for Asia-related news-sharing to enhance regional partners’ understanding and facilitate networking initiatives.

Moreover, two types of workshops have been proposed to promote democracy and its consolidation: a workshop at the country-level on disinformation for schools and organizations to improve young people’s information literacy and skills to combat “fake news”; and regular regional joint workshops to building regional communities and share first-hand information to young human rights defenders, with a focus on cyber security, utilization of new technology, legal training and protest-organizing strategies.

AYLD participants break into small groups as the project drafts its declaration.

The people behind the idea of holding regional workshops also agreed that lessons can be learned not only from what works, but also from failure. Stories of botched-up tactics and flops can be just as educational and rewarding as those touting successes. In the long run, they said, failure can be a series of steps and milestones leading to success.

Two visits by AYLD members — to the Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park and the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum — drove in the fact that failure can be but a temporary setback. While both sites are dedicated to activists and dissidents who “failed” in the face of an authoritarian regime, today they are now remembered with respect and pride, and the principles they fought for have prevailed over the forces of repression that, at the time, seemed implacable.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered her inauguration speech after being sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20 last year, she pledged to build a better nation for younger generations. The first and foremost task in fulfilling that goal, she said, is to reform the nation’s cash-trapped pension system that would otherwise go bankrupt within a decade. Stacy Hsu looks into the history of and the many challenges associated with this endeavor.

 

Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-dominated legislature passed the pension reform bills targeting retired civil servants and public-school teachers amid fierce protests in late June, the country’s pension system was a “political time-bomb” that many leaders before Tsai had tried — and failed — to defuse.

At the center of the problem are two notorious absurdities in the pension schemes of retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers: the so-called 18% preferential interest rate and abnormally high income replacement ratios.

The preferential interest rate can be dated back to as early as 1960, when Taiwan was under authoritarian one-party rule. In light of inflation and the relatively low salary received by public servants back in the day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime issued a series of administrative orders to offer a preferential saving rate on civil servants’ pension payments in a bid to ensure their financial security after retirement.

According to the Examination Yuan, the administrative body in charge of managing public servants, the saving rate has undergone several adjustments since its introduction, from the initial 21.6% to 14.25% in 1970, 16.7% in 1979 (with the rate floor at 14.25%), and then to 18% (also the rate floor) in 1983.

The preferential interest rate was scrapped following the implementation of a new pension system in 1995, which increased civil servants’ pension benefits by allocating part of their monthly income to the pension fund, rather than relying on the government as the sole contributor.

However, it did not quash the controversy surrounding it, as public servants who were hired before 1995 were still entitled to the saving rate after retirement. (The amount of a retiree’s pension payment that is eligible for the interest rate depends on a public servant’s pre-retirement income and number of years of service prior to 1995.)

The meeting minutes of the Presidential Office’s Pension Reform Committee show that as of June last year, approximately NT$462 billion (US$15 billion) in pension payments from about 457,000 public-sector retirees were stored in bank accounts eligible for the 18% interest rating, putting a NT$82 billion dent in government coffers each year.

The committee’s deputy convener, Lin Wan-i (林萬億), estimated that the interest rate would not really become history until 2054.

Though the saving rate had its historical necessity, today it is mostly seen as a remnant of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, one of the roots of social injustice, and a form of political payout by the previous KMT authoritarian regime to cement support among the nation’s civil servants, which has in turn created an uneven playing field for political parties.

Due to the preferential interest rate and/or public-sector employees’ ostensibly “unfair” pension calculation formula, some of their actual income replacement ratios (the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income) could be over 100%. This means they could earn even more in retirement than they did when they were on the workforce.

In 2006, despite leading a minority government, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP sought to reform the preferential interest rate. However, instead of gradually phasing out the rate, he only managed to cut down on the amount of pension payment from which a retiree could earn the interest rate by putting a cap on their income replacement ratio.

Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT, also made pension reform one of his policy priorities, describing the problem as so dire “people will regret it tomorrow if we do not reform it today.”

The Ma administration established a pension reform task force to solicit public opinions in 2009 before rolling out a draft plan in 2013. Despite the efforts, the plan was stalled at the KMT-dominated legislature at the time — allegedly due to electoral concerns and overwhelming criticism of what president Ma called a “painful decision” to cut year-end bonuses for public-sector retirees in 2012.

Failed efforts by her predecessors and fears of further alienating the DPP among public servants should have deterred President Tsai from making another attempt. Instead, she put pension reform at the forefront of her policies and joined hands with DPP lawmakers in ramming pension reform bills that many deem drastic through the legislature.

Under the bills passed so far, the 18% preferential interest rate will be reduced to zero two years after the bills’ promulgation scheduled for July 2018.

In addition, civil servants and public-school teachers (the draft bill for military personnel is yet to be drawn up) will see their income replacement ratio reduced to 60% within 10 years and ultimately be required to calculate their pension payment based on their average monthly salary in the final 15 years of employment, rather than their last month of service as currently stipulated.

Tsai’s reform success has reflected in her approval ratings. According to a survey by the TVBS poll center on July 12, the president’s support rate has climbed to 29%, from 21% in June.

Such efforts, however, are not without their costs. President Tsai has been shadowed by anti-reform protesters, some of whom have threatened to use violence or to disrupt events such as state visits by foreign presidents or the upcoming 2017 Universiade in Taipei. The KMT and its spin-off, the People First Party, are mulling filing a request for a constitutional interpretation on pension reform legislation.

Just as in other countries, pension reform is almost always a magnet of unpopularity and fierce protests. A good leader will know when to overlook temporary noises and focus on the long-term good.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 7: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

TDB Vol. 1 No. 7: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

While Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice. Specialists and victims of sexual and gender-based assault from around the world took part in a workshop organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy last week. Stacy Hsu reports.

 

Standing in front of a packed room full of participants at a workshop on ending sexual and gender-based violence in Asia on May 24 — part of the three-day East Asia Democracy Forum organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy — 18-year-old Taiwanese Victoria Hwang (黃靖茹) electrified her audience with her vivid account of the sexual assaults she suffered at far too young an age.

Hwang was 10 when a close relative raped her at her home. Due to the belief that “the ugly should be kept within the family” and the unfortunate Asian culture that regards sex as a taboo subject at home, Hwang’s parents neither called the perpetrator out nor provided their daughter the emotional comfort she desperately needed.

Instead, they tried to pacify her by saying that the family relative only touched her because “he liked her.” Until this day, Hwang is forced to face her rapist at family reunions every year. The worst part? She has to pretend nothing happened in order to maintain household harmony.

At age 15, Hwang was sexually assaulted by a male friend, to whom she admitted she was attracted. The man also justified his action by saying he had feelings for her. The excruciating realization that she could not turn to her parents for help, or talk to someone about what had happened to her, led to her being diagnosed a year later with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Read Your Pain founder Victoria Hwang.

Hwang’s trauma was not only caused by the two people who sexually violated her, but also a patriarchal society’s tendency to silence rape survivors. “If this society does not allow rape victims to tell their truths, they will never acquire the strength and support they need,” Hwang said.

Fortunately for Hwang, she stepped out of the shadows after realizing later that she had to overcome her fears and get her story out there for society to listen and change its traditional mindset. She also initiated a scheme called “Read Your Pain,” which publishes the stories of victims of sexual violence anonymously to help facilitate their healing process and raise awareness of the issue.

The 18-year-old’s successful transition from “a rape survivor to an activist” may seem encouraging, but many more victims of sexual assault remain encumbered by past trauma in the darkest corners of the world.

As Garden of Hope Foundation chief executive officer Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容) said in her opening remarks at the workshop, while Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice.

“How to empower these victims to help them through trauma, and make society realize they are not responsible for what happened to them, are the goals most countries are working towards,” Chi said.

Chi’s views were echoed by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Vice President Ketty W. Chen (陳婉宜), who believes the entrenched practices of “blaming the victims and assuming they must have done something wrong” are the greatest impediments to an appropriate societal attitude toward sexual violence and their survivors.

Though Taiwan currently has a relatively comprehensive sexual-assault safety net — including prevention campaigns by authorities and women’s rights groups, as well as an administrative mechanism of mandatory reporting of suspicious rape cases — there is still much room for improvement.

The time-consuming legal process for solving sexual abuse cases, coupled with a lack of gender awareness among some judges and prosecutors, can add to the already heavy psychological burden of victims, Chi said.

Chi gave the example of a recent case where a migrant worker was sexually assaulted three times by her employer. “The authorities, convinced of the existence of an emotional bond between the assaulter and the victim, concluded that the sexual acts were consensual and decided not to prosecute the case,” she said.

Education is another aspect that requires more emphasis, said Wang Yue-hao (王玥好), deputy chief executive officer of the Garden of Hope Foundation, singling out the common misconception that most sexual offenses are committed by strangers, while in fact in most cases the perpetrators are acquaintances.

Lee Ping-chang (李炳樟), a specialist at the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Mental and Oral Health, also warned against the association of rapists with mental illness, saying that less than 10 percent of sex offenders are actually found to have psychological problems.

“That is why we should focus more on monitoring them [sexual assaulters], rather than treating them,” Lee said.

Such a mistaken belief also prevails when people think about violence against women, said Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah, who formerly served as executive director of the Selangor-based Women’s Aid Organization.

“Violence against women is not a mental health issue, but one rooted in gender inequality, power imbalance and discrimination,” said Josiah, adding that alcohol, work-related pressure, or financial difficulties are merely enabling factors of such violence, as opposed to the primary causes.

Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah.

Whether it is sexual or gender-based violence, there was a resounding consensus among the workshop participants that more action by both government and communities is needed to resolve the problem.

All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano stressed the importance of government funding for shelters for victims of physical violence. According to statistics provided by Kusano, physical violence at the hands of a husband in Japan is the cause of death of a wife every three days.

Kusano said her organization took the initiative in establishing the first shelter for victims with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in Japan in August 2014, but the project only lasted eight months and fell apart shortly after they ran out of government subsidies.

All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano.

Although almost every country today provides shelters and emergency hotlines for violence survivors, Josiah said community involvement is still vital to helping battered women and their children.

“While it is easy to find help in a small nation like Taiwan, in big countries like India, you cannot find services everywhere,” Josiah said. “So there is a lot of work to get the community to stand up to provide service to each other.”

As to what can be done next to further combat violence against women, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs gender specialist Crystal Rosario offered an interesting suggestion: Incorporating gender-sensitive elements into soap operas.

Rosario’s idea resonated among many participants, including Josiah, who urged TV producers to come up with popular drama shows that challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them, as most Korean soap operas tend to do.

Other suggestions included providing interactive and educational touring plays to local community centers, launching campaigns that better engage men on gender equality, and offering re-education for members of society.

Re-education is particularly important at a time when people have started to see sexual assault and domestic violence as social norms, Josiah said, adding she regretted that only sensational news stories, such as one about a woman being raped by 20 men, receive public attention nowadays.

“We should really try to change and challenge this mindset,” she said.

Taiwan Foundation for Democracy vice president Ketty W. Chen.

Women’s group Gabriela secretary-general Joms Salvador.

 

All photos by the Garden of Hope Foundation.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 6: Democracy Challenged

TDB Vol. 1 No. 6: Democracy Challenged

From democratic recession to the rise of ‘fake news,’ authoritarian influence to accusations of Occidental imperialism, freedom around the world is under assault. Global experts and NGO luminaries met at TFD in Taipei last week to brainstorm and find ways to fight back. Alison Hsiao gives us the highlights.

 

Challenges confronting democracies, running the gamut from fake news to repression of civil society, are real, grave and on the rise, experts from around the globe warned during the fourth annual East Asia Democracy Forum held in Taipei last week. The experts called on democracies and civil societies to join efforts to safeguard freedoms against authoritarianism and to reinvent and strengthen democratic institutions in the face of repressive regimes’ negative propaganda.

“Democratization and democratic consolidation around the world not only have stalled. According to scholars who study democracy, the world is now experiencing a democratic recession,” Taiwan Foundation for Democracy President Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉) said in the opening remarks.

“When dictators are perfecting their rule by learning from each other, we must not only keep a watchful eye on our democracies. We must also improve and strengthen our democratic systems and defend democratic values, so authoritarian regimes cannot take advantage of the weaknesses of democratic procedures and use them against us,” he added.

Taiwan Foundation for Democracy president Hsu Szu-chien, right, makes remarks during the East Asia Democracy Forum in Taipei.

Hsu’s points were resoundingly echoed by the speakers at the forum. Louisa Greve, Vice President for Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Global Programs at the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, also raised concerns over a democratic retreat, with democratic norms assaulted, civil society repressed, information space polluted and kleptocracy rife.

Russia and China are two non-democratic regimes whose presence and practices loomed large in some of the mentioned malaise. Greve pointed out that both countries in recent years have passed laws restricting the activities of civic groups and posed a threat to both online information and the halls of power.

China’s new non-governmental organization management law that came into force earlier this year, for example, targets both Chinese human rights lawyers and activists and foreign NGO workers and scholars, as manifest in the detention of Swedish citizen Peter Dahlin and Sydney academic Feng Chongyi (馮崇義).

Louisa Greve, Vice President for Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Global Programs at the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, speaks at the East Asia Democracy Forum.

Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲), who since mid-March been detained incommunicado by Chinese authorities for “jeopardizing national security,” is another example. The cases demonstrate that “from a free country or not, you can be easily affected by other countries’ human rights [deteriorated] conditions,” said Chiu Eeling (邱伊翎), secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.

Democratic institutions could also be seriously compromised and corrupted when authoritarians are allowed, with the use of corrupt money, “to project their influence across borders in order to finance their campaigns to make the globe safe for authoritarianism,” Greve said.

“Awareness and recognition” is where we could begin to respond to the challenge of kleptocracy, which is “transnational, new and require[s] us to adjust our thinking,” she stressed, offering by way of example how residents of London could take action by creating a “kleptocracy tour” to see which neighborhoods have Russian oligarchs buying luxurious real estates.

Chiu Eeling, secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.

Equally disquieting for democratic communities, said Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), are fake news, digital disinformation, and the slow adaptation by democratic institutions to new technological changes.

A global cyber security firm went through all the social media posts “supposedly from protesters in a series of riots about the death of an African American man in Baltimore who died in police custody because of alleged mistreatment,” and found that a vast majority of them actually originated from Russia, China, India and the Middle East, Hubli said.

“Well over 100 pro-Trump websites are registered in Veles, Macedonia, a 55,000-person town,” he said. “During the [U.S. presidential election] campaign, a young group of entrepreneurs were earning tens of thousands of U.S. dollars on fake news, pro-Trump websites and stories they just invented out of thin air.”

Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at the National Democratic Institute.

Fake stories sometimes can just be funny, but when they are completely preposterous, they can still be believable for those who frequently visit highly politicized websites even if they look ludicrous to mainstream politicians or traditional media, Hubli warned.

And retraction of fake news “rarely works,” for when — and if — those are noticed the damage has usually already been done, he added. “You can’t combat the fire hose of falsehood with a squirt gun of truth.”

How, then, do we save democracy in a digital age? Hubli said we should try to better understand our own disinformation vulnerabilities, integrate the discussion over these issues into the international infrastructure for election monitoring, disrupt the economy of fake news by advocating to tech companies who can reduce the financial incentives for disinformation, and “pre-bunk” disinformation by strengthening public media literacy and sensitivity.

What’s more fundamentally at stake, Hubli added, is the reinvention of democratic institutions. “A lot of disinformation narrative is showing how ineffective democratic models are or that they are equally corrupt and bad [as the authoritarian models].”

Creating a more informed public and actively engaging them with democratic systems that have been long criticized as insufficiently representative, is precisely what Josh Wang (王希), one of the initiators of Watchout and Congress Investigation Corps – two Taiwanese platforms aiming to lower the threshold for familiarizing the general public with substantive political discussion – have been advocating.

Josh Wang, one of the initiators of Watchout and Congress Investigation Corps.

His teams have set up websites where Legislative Yuan documents are visualized with graphs and videos of Taiwanese lawmakers’ remarks (the absurd and the insightful), during question-and-answer sessions are edited for public reference.

“Making politics fun” and the nation’s congress more open and transparent is what has inspired the teams. Political parties, incumbent lawmakers and challengers had their voting records and expressed stances listed and visualized during the most recent 2016 legislative election, for example. The teams also continued to function as a watchdog after the new legislature took office, arranging for lawmakers to meet face-to-face with young electorates and to be bombarded, as government officials are by them during the legislative sessions, with questions.

 

Gender Injustice

The threshold to politics, however, proves to be of different heights for different groups.

Violence against women in politics (VAWP) is a serious hurdle for women around the world. “Violence targeting politically active women makes it more difficult to build sustainable and resilient democracy,” said Crystal Rosario, a gender specialist at the NDI.

“Too many women are told that when they experience this violence that it’s just the price of doing politics, but violence should never be the cost of politics,” she said.

In 2016 the NDI launched the international “Not The Cost” campaign to bring awareness and encourage action to end it. “While violence against women is often associated with domestic violence and trafficking, VAWP has been defined as a range of gender-based harms that seek to force women into a subordinate position with men,” said Rosario, adding that while the extreme form may be assassination, more often, this violence “takes the form of persistent harassment and psychological, physical and sexual abuse.”

In Mongolia, women in politics, as in many other Asian countries, face systematic discrimination such as traditional and social norms preferring “strong men” in the political arena, said Erdenechimeg Badrakh, Executive Director of Mongolian Women’s Fund. Issues about women’s rights are also more than often easily brushed aside or stalled in the parliamentary discussion, she added.

For many more people from the south hemisphere, however, gender justice is more than about challenging gender injustice or gender inequality, as what lies at the core of this injustice is economic policies and institutions that deeply entrench the social inequalities, according to Tetet Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE).

Talk about gender justice needs to “go beyond the notion of women’s empowerment that has been promoted by the World Bank and other similar institutions,” she said.

Tetet Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness.

Gender justice is not a single, separable issue, Lauron added, but one to be integrated in the macro-problem of the world’s “obscene inequality,” to which women and girls are particularly vulnerable, and to achieve gender justice would mean “deconstructing those institutions and policies that work against not just women but all people claiming their right and striving to have a voice of their own and the power to imagine their own future.”

 

Asia and the Community of Democracies 

The extent to which people have moved closer to creating a more equal and open society varies greatly in different parts of the world. In Asia alone, the answer also varies dramatically across the region.

Asia is a region where countries are unequally developed, with some, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, having developed relatively stable, democratic and open systems, and others that are governed by semi-democratic or outright authoritarian and closed regimes.

While challenges to democracy were emphasized in the forum, Greve said counterexamples in the region are cause for hope.

It took 50 years after the country’s post-independence military coup in 1962, in 2012 – with democratic movements budded and oppressed during the dark days – that Burma had its first genuine democratic election. “The fruit of the struggle came after a long period of repression, and now Burma has open elections in the context of partial democracy in the constitution,” Greve said.

Sri Lanka suffered decades of forced disappearances and brutal civil war that ended with tens of thousands of civilian casualties, “and yet the voters of Sri Lanka overcame these deficits and had a peaceful election which surprisingly threw out the long-serving family dynasty,” she said.

Despite experiencing Beijing’s increasingly constraining measures and tightening control in the recent years, Hong Kong has seen a rising young generation of democracy fighters, Greve said. Quoted Martin Lee (李柱銘), a Hong Kong political activist who has lived under both British colonial rule and the current Chinese sovereignty. “What gives me hope is to find people who were not born at the time of the handover in 1997 are now leading the struggle for democratic rise in Hong Kong.”

People power recently manifested its force in the ousting of corrupt political leadership in South Korea as well, but Jung-ok Lee, professor of sociology at Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, still believes there is cause for worry when it comes to South Korean society’s conception of what underlies the country’s democratic institutions.

A “haunted question” that has been repeatedly raised in South Korea, and probably in most East Asian countries, is that whether the idea of democracy and human rights came from the West or dovetails with East Asian traditions, Lee said.

Those doubts, Lee said, originated from the fact that South Korea’s modern nation-building was unlike that of Western countries, which started with “civil society initiatives based on rights, duties and creation of collective will.”

“When asked about democracy, many South Koreans recalled resistance and demonstrations. We have created our democratic identity via resistance, but that is not enough,” she said.

Kaori Shoji, professor of political science at Japan’s Gakushuin University, shared the same concerns for a people lacking commitment to genuine democratic principles.

“Democracy in its form itself is not enough,” she said, citing Japan’s nearly 60-year one-party dominance as a cause of unease. “We have to strive for substantive, pluralistic democracy with [an authentic and workable] multiple-party system.”

From left: Kaori Shoji, professor of political science at Japan’s Gakushuin University, Jung-ok Lee, professor of sociology at Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, and TFD president Hsu Szu-chien.

For many Japanese, the motivations for supporting a functioning civil society are not for sustaining democratic institutions per se but out of a “pacifist attitude or [other] single issues such as anti-nuclear energy,” especially for members of the old generation who had first-hand experience of the Second World War and are keenly aware of what Japan did in and around Asia, Shoji said.

People do not appreciate democracy, which was “given by the [Allied] Occupation force to Japan after the war,” and human rights are often considered Western in Japan, with conservative politicians attacking the notion, saying it is too individualistic and detrimental to Japanese traditional values, she said.

Enmity to this supposed “non-Asia-ness” has been acutely palpable for Shoji, who doubles as chair of the board of Amnesty International Japan.

NGOs are often considered “Western” in Japan and NGO workers advocating certain issues are regarded as “foreign surrogates,” she said, adding that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that “Asia has a limited voice within the international NGOs.”

Shouji called for more effort and networking to be undertaken to change the status quo.

The Community of Democracies (CoD) is a platform where such networking could occur. The intergovernmental coalition was established in 2000 under the premise that governments around the world “need to come together to help strength democracy in countries that have already made democratic commitment,” said Robert Herman, Vice President for International Programs at the U.S.-based Freedom House.

A critical premise, agreed to by the group, is that there is “no such thing as a perfect democracy, as all democracies are in some evolutionary process,” learning from each other, he stressed.

It is also agreed that civil societies have an important role to play in consolidating democracies, Herman said.

The Civil Society Pillar – one of the affiliated bodies at the CoD and of which the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy is currently a board member of its standing International Steering Committee (ISC) – is where the organization “aims to facilitate close dialogue with civil society around the world, even in places where it faces challenges and restrictions.”

But the operations of the CoD are not without difficulties or critics.

Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, a Co-chair of the ISC, hinted at one of the problems by openly calling, two days before the deadline, for applicants to the position of secretary-general of the CoD, which is expected to be vacant with the incumbent’s two-year term soon to end, and pointing out that there was no one lining up to succeed the U.S. to be the next presidency.

The U.S., which current holds the presidency, was described by Herman as one of the countries that are on the CoD Governing Council but at the same time witnessing “democratic backsliding,” which constitutes a further challenge to the world’s community of democracies in the present era, where “new authoritarianisms and global assault on liberal democratic institutions and values” have already put democracies on the defensive.

How is Asia faring with CoD networking? Gus Miclat, executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue from the Philippines, questioned what India, South Korea and Japan, the three Asian CoD Governing Council member states, have been doing across borders with each other and with other democracies in the region.

Anselmo Lee, executive director of the Korea Human Rights Foundation and secretary-general of Asia Democracy Network, echoed those views and asked why no statement was issued by Asian countries, unlike the U.S. and Europe, when incidents such as the military coup in Thailand occurred.

“Like-minded countries in Asia” should be brought together and put the mission of CoD into practice in the region, especially during a time when everybody is talking about democratic regression, he said.

“In order for CoD to be relevant to us and to the lives of people of the community of democracies, you have to have impact. Now it’s low-key if there at all, but politically [the impact] is a bit wanting,” Miclat said after pointing out that the organization lacks public recognition.

The highlight of the CoD may be the invitation process every two years. where it is decided which democracies are to be invited as participating members based on their democratic performance against the CoD guidelines, Miclat said.

“But no one knows the implications [of the invitation process]” if it is not publicized, Miclat said, adding tha publicity and analysis of the invitation process is what is needed for the CoD to have more impact.

There is also “a glaring contradiction [in how CoD works] in the region,” he continued. “There is a vibrant democratic government that is not a member of CoD” due to the “strong lobby of a country that is not even democratic and not a member of CoD.”

Miclat was referring to Taiwan and China. “This is a contradiction we need to address head on.”

 

From left: NDI’s Crystal Rosario, Scott Hubli, Louisa Greve, TFD’s Michael Kau, and TFD’s Hsu Szu-chien.

 

All photos by Huang Hsiengo/TFD

TDB Vol. 1 No. 5: Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 Paves the Way for Marriage Equality in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 5: Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 Paves the Way for Marriage Equality in Taiwan

Although the ruling by the Council of Grand Justices fails to resolve the dilemma between amending the Civil Code or enacting of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the judges to support their ruling indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values. Stacy Hsu reports.

 

A large crowd of gay marriage supporters standing anxiously outside the Legislative Yuan on May 24 cheered after Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices ruled in an unprecedented move that the Civil Code’s prohibition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and demanded the law be amended within two years.

The ruling, titled Interpretation No. 748, states that the Civil Code, which currently prevents two individuals of the same gender from creating a permanent union for the committed purpose of managing a life together, is in violation of people’s constitutionally protected freedom of marriage and right to equality.

Article 972 of the Civil Code stipulates that an agreement to marry shall be made by “the male and the female parties” in their own concord.

The ruling accordingly urges concerned authorities to amend or enact laws within two years in accordance with the Interpretation, but allows them to decide in what manner they intend to achieve the equal protection of the freedom of marriage.

As the Interpretation enables homosexual couples to register their marriage should the authorities fail to complete relevant law amendments within the given timeframe, it could pave the way for Taiwan to become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.

The constitutional interpretation was issued in response to separate requests filed by the Taipei City Government and gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei (祁家威) in 2015. Chi has sought legal recognition of his union with his partner in the past three decades. His latest attempt, in 2013, was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court in September 2014, prompting his request for an interpretation.

Gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei, who initiated the appeal to the Council of Grand Justices, waves the rainbow flag during the 2016 LGBT Pride parade in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)

The case has attracted tremendous attention both at home and overseas since the Council of Grand Justices held a closely watched hearing on same-sex marriage on March 24 this year.

Supporters of homosexual unions staked their hopes on the Interpretation after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration gave signs it was stalling efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in the Legislative Yuan due to pressure from religious and conservative groups.

Several amendments to the Civil Code to recognize same-sex marriage cleared a legislative committee in late December 2016, but they have yet to be put on the agenda for a plenary review.

The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.

The delays were also partly due to divided opinions among lawmakers, even within the DPP, on whether to recognize homosexual marriage by amending the Civil Code — which is deemed by conservative opponents as detrimental to the traditional family structure — or enacting a special law, which has been criticized by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups as discriminatory.

Although Interpretation No. 748 fails to solve the dilemma between amendment of the Civil Code and enactment of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the Grand Justices to support their ruling today indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values.

The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.

The ruling also refutes the myth that homosexuality is reversible, arguing that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic decided by many contributing factors and that homosexuality is not a disease.

Another argument frequently cited by opponents to same-sex marriage was also dismissed by the Interpretation. It stipulates that since the Civil Code does not make the ability to procreate a prerequisite for a heterosexual marriage, reproduction should not be seen as an essential element of marriage nor used as an excuse to deny homosexual couples their right to marry.

So far the ruling has met with vastly different reactions. Opponents of same-sex marriage have threatened to request another constitutional interpretation or to take the case to the Control Yuan for an investigation, while supporters have expressed their pride in “being Taiwanese.”

Both the Presidential Office and Legislative Yuan Speaker Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) said they respected the Interpretation, pledging to handle future legislative efforts with a tolerant and understanding attitude. However, as lawmakers from different parties remain divided on how to legalize same-sex marriage following the ruling, the road to achieving marriage equality in Taiwan may still be bumpy.

 

Top photo: J. Michael Cole

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

Physical violence and denial of access to members of the press are two tactics that have been used with alarming frequency in recent months by civic groups bent on blocking legislation proposed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. J. Michael Cole reports.

 

Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.

As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.

More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.

Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.

On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.

On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.

According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.

During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)

Photo: Yahoo News

Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.

Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.

(Top photo: Match.net.tw)

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