TDB Vol. 1 No. 17: An Interview with AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen Bacalso

TDB Vol. 1 No. 17: An Interview with AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen Bacalso

As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s Alison Hsiao sat down with Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Secretary General of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, winner of the 2016 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award, to talk about memory, justice, and government crimes against ordinary citizens. 

 

On Dec. 10, 2016, the eve of the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy awarded the 2016 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award, a prize established and sponsored by TFD to honor individuals and organizations that have demonstrated a strong commitment to advancing democracy and human rights through peaceful means across Asia, to the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).

In her acceptance speech, AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen D. Bacalso said that Taiwan is a country that “ha[d] a common experience of enforced disappearances during [its] authoritarian rule,” adding that receiving the award from such a place was a “noble expression of friendship and solidarity.”

For the Philippines, where AFAD is based and Ms. Bacalso is from, the award probably also came at a propitious time, as the country was marking the 20th anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’ overthrow in the wake of the People’s Power Revolution in 1986. Marcos was accused of killing, abducting and torturing his opponents and activists under Martial Law, which he had declared in 1972 and did not lift until 1981.

Asked in a separate interview earlier this year what has changed since the lifting of Martial Law in her country and the dictator’s ouster, Bacalso responded with pessimism.

Besides the loss of “the best and the brightest,” who could have been the pillars of present-day Philippines had they not been killed or disappeared, it is also “unfortunate that not many people have been educated [about] what happened in the past,” she said.

While it was “encouraging that many young people took to the streets when [the incumbent Philippine government] moved Marcos’ remains to the country’s heroes’ resting place [last November], unfortunately the protest was not sustained” as it should have, she said.

“There can be no genuine reconciliation without justice. While there is monetary compensation, taken from the Marcos’ wealth, that does not give justice. No amount of money could compensate for the lives lost and disappeared.”

Honoring Marcos the dictator as a national hero by “burying him in the Heroes’ Cemetery causes a lot of shame in a country that underwent repressive rule and whose best and brightest men and women were disappeared, killed and executed,” Bacalso said.

Schools should have provided a platform where young people can obtain knowledge about the past, but “in some textbooks Marcos has continued to be portrayed as a hero,” she said. And the fact that Marcos was buried in the Heroes’ Cemetery also sent a misleading “message to the young people that we have forgiven him, that we should reconcile for the sake of the future.”

“There can be no genuine reconciliation without justice,” Bacalso emphasized. “While there is monetary compensation, taken from the Marcos’ wealth, that does not give justice. No amount of money could compensate for the lives lost and disappeared.”

“There must be admission of what happened in the past and public apology from the Marcoses and from those who were involved in human rights violations during the Martial Law period,” she continued.

Bacalso’s remarks had resonance with many people in Taiwan who have called for transitional justice, men and women for whom certain anachronistic — if not outrightly offensive — authoritarian-era icons are still featured prominently around the country. For them, such controversial figures should also be held accountable for what they did, and their crimes should not be whitewashed using superficial pretexts such as “other values” over justice.

Enforced Disappearances 

The award was AFAD’s first for its accomplishments, Bacalso said, adding that and it “recognizes the suffering of the victims of enforced disappearances” which at this very moment still occurs on the Asian continent.

And this strikes very close to home for Bacalso. The former AFAD chairperson, Munir Said, was allegedly assassinated during a flight from Indonesia to Amsterdam via Singapore in 2004; its present chairperson, Khurram Parvez, was arbitrarily detained for more than two months in India in 2016, while many others from AFAD’s partner organizations in the region have been arrested, attacked or threatened.

The era during which Taiwanese were arbitrarily arrested by the government has long ended, but democratization has not stopped the Chinese communist regime from kidnapping or arbitrarily detaining Taiwanese nationals such as Lee Ming-che in March this year (people from other nationalities have suffered a similar fate in China).

AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, left, shares the organization’s stories and objectives at the 2017 Asia Young Leaders for Democracy program in Taipei in August (Photo: Taiwan Foundation for Democracy).

Bacalso’s organization is urging countries to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and entered into force in 2010. But the political conundrum in this case is evident: While China is not expected to be a signatory anytime soon — not to mention that China was, according to Bacalso, “one of the most difficult states during the Convention-drafting negotiation process, invoking national security” — Taiwan as a non-UN member is not in a position to sign the Convention.

Notwithstanding the dilemma, she encouraged Taiwan to incorporate the contents of the Convention into its domestic laws, as it has done for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

By doing so, Taiwan would be “a good example for those countries that are members of the UN, and I’m sure this will pressure China as well,” she said.

There is a reason why Taiwan has a role to play in advocating against the crime of enforced disappearance, Bacalso concluded. “It’s important for Taiwan to have a domestic laws against enforced disappearances because you had enforced disappearances during your four decades of Martial Law. It should be a lesson that could teach the present and future governments. It’s also an explicit admission that there were enforced disappearances in your [dark] period of history.”

The winner of the 2017 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award will be announced on Nov 15.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

Movements that are driven by a conservative ideology are joining hands to block various progressive efforts by the government in Taiwan. Using threats, violence, disinformation and even democratic instruments, these groups seek to intimidate civilians and elected officials in the pursuit of their objectives. J. Michael Cole looks into the latest developments.

 

Violence-prone groups that advocate unification with China, a movement that opposes the Tsai Ing-wen government’s pension reform program and religious organizations that are dead set against the legalization of same-sex marriage (and homosexuality in general) have come together and formed a loose coalition in recent months, using tactics that go against the progressive momentum that has animated Taiwanese society in recent years.

Though more alliance of convenience than an actual structured organization, the three movements have joined ranks to push back against what many regard as progress, and have had no compunction in resorting to threats and violence to punish, intimidate and silence their ideological opponents. Left unchecked, these activities will contribute to greater social instability and undermine the nation’s democratic institutions.

Violence and threats

A handful of groups have resorted to physical violence, and the threat thereof, in recent months. Led by Chang An-le’s (aka “White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) and its ideological ally, the Concentric Patriot Association (CPA), these groups have repeatedly attacked protesters and students at various venues, most recently during the aborted “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival.” The CUPP and CPA are believed to be working alongside Chinese triads, chief among them the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas Gang.

Besides their involvement in violent altercations during the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the groups have been linked to assaults targeting members of the Falun Gong and young pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong (interestingly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alleged recently that the Bamboo Union  is behind the proliferation of the drug trade in his country). Moreover, the CUPP has been present at protests against pension reform and has collaborated with the Blue Sky Alliance, a violence-prone organization that is suspected of involvement in physical assaults against elected officials outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei earlier this year. Anti-pension reform groups were also behind the disruptions during the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei last month. The Blue Sky Alliance also added its own threats against students after the concert incident.

Following the controversy surrounding the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival,” which has been regarded as a United Front effort by the Chinese, numerous Taiwanese activists have reported receiving threatening messages on social media. In at least one instance, a message made a direct reference to a knife attack. The spouse of Yao Li-ming, a vocal talk show personality, has also received threats, cautioning her to be “careful” next time she visits the market. Given precedent in China and Hong Kong, such threats should not be taken lightly and require proper investigation by the authorities, which in the past week have launched a series of raids against locations associated with the Bamboo Union (although he denies it, Chang, who served a decade in U.S. prison for drug trafficking, is widely suspected of being associated with the group).

Chang An-le, aka “White Wolf,” speaks to reporters during a protest outside DPP headquarters in Taipei (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Young activists, including former Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-ting (now a legislative aide), have also been threatened with lawsuits for exposing links between concert organizers and UFW groups back in China. “Lawfare,” as the tactic is sometimes referred to, has been used with greater frequency by Chinese companies and organizations in recent months to silence and intimidate investigative journalists and academics.

The atmosphere of fear that is generated by the use and threat of violence is anathema to the inherent liberties in a democratic system, where different opinions should be aired without fear of reprisal. Involvement by crime syndicates, which have access to weapons, adds a layer of apprehension among people who advocate for their country and a progressive, liberal-democratic way of life.

Although the tolerance of pro-unification parties like the CUPP is a clear manifestation of Taiwan’s political maturity and democratic openness, such permissiveness ought to have its limits. If a registered political party ceases to act like one; if it intermingles with organized crime; if it infiltrates and co-opts grassroots organizations (trade groups, temples); if its head is, as he claims, collaborating with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (or one of its subsidiaries tasked with “turning” criminals and using them to further unificationist objectives); and if, as is suspected, it receives illegal funding (possibly from a foreign and hostile government), then its rights as a party should be annulled and the CUPP should be written off as an entity that operates outside the system. In other words, unless its leaders agree to abide by the democratic rules of the game that define Taiwanese politics, the CUPP should be barred from participating in elections or engaging in other forms of activities that are the remit of law-abiding political parties.

Using democracy against itself

Meanwhile, the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, an alliance created to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, is reportedly within a hair’s breadth of collecting enough signatures — 25,119 — to launch a recall vote against Huang Kuo-chang, the executive chairman of the New Power Party (NPP). Huang, whose NPP emerged from the Sunflower Movement and is well regarded by young progressive Taiwanese, has openly supported same-sex marriage and pension reform. A count on Oct. 6 will determine whether all the signatures gathered are valid. Should the attempt succeed, Huang could be removed despite not having committed a crime or been involved in irregularities; his removal would be the result of conservative/religious groups who cannot countenance a society that operates outside the confines of a literal and often self-serving interpretation of a religious text that guides no more than 5% of the total population of Taiwan.

The Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, which has initiated the attempted recall campaign against Huang, is a close ally of the Faith and Hope League party, which itself serves as an umbrella for various highly conservative Evangelical churches across Taiwan that have actively opposed same-sex marriage and which are generally anti-gay and against sex ed in school. The groups are also known to have been collaborating with MassResistance, a U.S.-based organization that promotes conservative values and that has been described as a “hate group.” Using disinformation and a fear campaign on social media to win over adherents to their cause, other religious groups (including Presbyterians) have threatened similar punitive action against politicians who support same-sex marriage, including the Democratic Progressive Party’s Wang Ting-yu in Tainan.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan predict doom and gloom during a rally outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei on Nov. 17, 2016 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

National Civil Servant Association president Harry Lee, who has spearheaded opposition to pension reform, has also thrown his support for the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, thus merging opposition to same-sex marriage and pension reform, two issues that enjoy majority support with the Taiwanese public (more than 80% of young Taiwanese support the legalization of same-sex marriage). The CUPP’s Chang An-le is also known to have taken part in activities (including a panel) organized by anti-gay groups in Taiwan.

United in their opposition to progressive ideas, the alliance of convenience that has recently emerged in Taiwan threatens to serve as a force multiplier whereby the anti-liberal-democratic tactics used by one group exacerbate the efforts of other groups, however unrelated their causes. The involvement of pro-Chinese Communist Party, violence-prone and ostensibly triad-related groups in those movements adds a worrying variable to the mix and compounds the resulting instability.

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