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.