As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, much still needs to be done to ensure that a proper account of what happened is given as the memories, victims and perpetrators fade into the past. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

It was 1980, a year after the Formosa Magazine Incident. Still in high school, Chen Tsui-lien (陳翠蓮) was asked to “serve the country” after enrolling in university.

Her mission? To “catch the bad guys,” like those involved in the Formosa Magazine Incident, who, according to the school discipline director, were captured thanks to the assistance of many “patriotic youths.”

Selected by the system, Chen said was proud to be one of the students chosen for the spying assignment.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, which had been declared in 1949. To coincide with various commemorative events this year, the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (TATR), an organization dedicated to transitional justice in Taiwan, has launched an initiative calling on “ordinary people to share their memories of the Martial Law period.

During her high school years, immersed in an educational environment closely monitored and calibrated for collective action and inebriated with stilted patriotic refrains, Chen, now a history professor at National Taiwan University, was a what we could call a “defiant” daughter: she was appalled by her father’s criticism of nationalistic songs and accused him of being “unpatriotic.”

Professor Chen Tsui-lien tells about the state’s attempt to recruit her as a spy during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).

“My parents couldn’t sleep at night after I told them how excited I was that I was going to help the country,” Chen said of her spying assignment during a talk organized by TATR last month.

Chen’s father, however, explicitly told her that she should not accept the school director’s offer. “You’re out of your head for wanting to go. You will be responsible for many lives,” he said.

“I cried so hard because this ban,” she told a laughing crowd.

Chen is among the lucky ones who eventually sensed “cracks” in the Potemkin village created by the authoritarian government’s propaganda later in her college years.

“Once you noticed the inconsistencies in their narratives, there was no turning back,” she said.

But “sensing cracks” was far from ordinary. While there indeed were hot-blooded activists who were extremely committed to fighting authoritarianism, several others — like Chen’s parents — only secretly harbored an attitude of resistance. And then there were the “free riders,” those for whom the TATR event would be more appropriately titled “ordinary people’s no-memory of the Martial Law period,” said NTU history professor Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈).

“It’s undeniable that in the latter part of the Martial Law period, which overlapped with an era of high economic growth, many were occupied by the sole idea of making money and accustomed to the life under Martial Law,” Chou said.

Admittedly life could be pretty safe — as long as you stayed away from the “unpatriotic activities and riots that disturbed social stability,” which is how resistance was portrayed by the regime. The mentality explains why many Taiwanese, especially those who are now in their 50s, remember pre-Martial Law life with nostalgia.

“There is a reason why Taiwan’s democratization has been called a ‘quiet revolution,’” NTU political science professor Huang Chang-ling (黃長玲) said. “And this trait does make the country’s transitional justice harder to achieve.”

The problems arising from historical amnesia soon manifested themselves after TATR invited ordinary people to share their stories online and to present (if they had any) memorabilia to accompany their narratives.

Among the items posted was an encyclopedia with blacked out, or “sanitized,” entries about the People’s Republic of China that attested to the era’s censorship. Other participants shared their memories of being indoctrinated with Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People at school, being punished for speaking “dialects,” or even being forced to tear out the star logos (unfortunately red) printed on their Converse All Star shoes.

A ‘sanitized’ version of the Encyclopedia Americana, with passages blacked-out by state censors. The encyclopedia is kept at the National Chiao Tung University Library (photo courtesy of TATR).

Soon enough, the stories attracted criticism by people who accused the witnesses of lying and fabrication. Some questioned the authenticity of memories they said cannot be verified, while others turned to their own memories and stated that since they did not experience such traumas, the stories must therefore be fake.

The attacks forced TATR to issue a statement calling on netizens to respect the diversity of memories of life under Martial Law held by people from different regions, generations and groups, and not to dismiss other people’s life experiences.

“The same questioning logic can always be applied to the questioners themselves,” it said.

“Contemporary studies of personal and collective memories indicate that how the past is narrated can indeed be influenced by the time and situation in which the memories were told, the passage of time and the interaction between the narrator and the hearer,” it said. “But the past is not easily the product of manipulation in a democratic society where files are declassified, different groups of people’s memories are told and historical studies are done in an open and free academic environment.”

When “ordinary people” debate past events, what is really at stake but still lacking is a national report by the government detailing how many people were executed, jailed (and for how long) and subjected to surveillance, and how the institutions behind these operations played their roles and coordinated with each other.

“The state may have offered compensation to the victims of the White Terror, continues to declassify files, maintains historical sites and has even published the victims’ memoirs and interviews, but it has otherwise been completely silent about its past crimes [as an authoritarian regime],” Huang said.

“The public’s understanding of the White Terror has become hollow,” she said, adding that the victims are now little more than “elders in the family.”

People today mostly hear about the White Terror through stories that come up, inadvertently or not, during family conversations, which also refer to the persecutors as “the evil KMT.”

“It’s not exactly wrong to think of them in that way,” Huang adds, “but it certainly shows that the issue of state violence and its complexity has not been truly deliberated and reflected upon.”

Huang Chang-ling speaks during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).