by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

TODAY SAW A turbulent 70th anniversary of the 228 Massacre, with clashes between KMT supporters and those commemorating the massacre. Clashes occured with an attempt to disrupt Gongsheng Music Festival by elderly members of the Huang Fu Hsing branch of the KMT, which consists of members of the military and their relatives, and dueling protests at Liberty Plaza between Taiwanese independence advocates and KMT supporters. Indigenous activists also protested against the Tsai administration’s lack of action on the restoration of indigenous land rights, in collaboration with 228 commemoration events, seeing as whether with the crimes committed against Taiwanese indigenous by Han settlers, or the KMT’s murder of benshengren Taiwanese in the 228 Massacre, both point towards the broader need for transitional justice in Taiwan.

The demonstrations which took place at Liberty Plaza early this afternoon revolved around Taiwanese independence activists from the Free Taiwan Party and other groups calling for the removal of the Chiang Kai-Shek statue which remains enshrined at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. Chiang Kai-Shek statues, of course, remain controversial, seeing as statues of Chiang are found throughout Taiwan, but they memorialize an authoritarian dictator who authorized the deaths of thousands of Taiwanese. The Chiang statue at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, which was built in dedication to Chiang’s memory as part of his cult of personality, is the largest and most politically significant Chiang statue in Taiwan, but even after the DPP Chen and Tsai administration, it has not been removed. Demonstrations appear to have begun shortly after noon.

Pro-independence demonstrators at Liberty Plaza. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Defacements of Chiang Kai-Shek statues across Taiwan occur regularly around the time of 228 every year, particularly by students on college and high school campuses. The Free Taiwan Party has forcibly demolished Chiang statues in the past, taking matters into its own hands to remove the traces of authoritarianism which persist from the era of KMT rule as represented by Chiang statues. Indeed, preceding today’s 228 commemorations, yesterday night would see turmoil at Fu Jen Catholic University, with students who attempting to remove the Chiang Kai-Shek statue on Fu Jen’s campus, clashing with police, and this leading to police locking down the campus. Livestream footage of this series of events was circulated heavily on social media among Taiwanese activists.

But, seeing as the removal of the Chiang Kai-Shek statue in the Chiang Kai-Shek was impossible this afternoon with the presence of several hundred riot police on site, the Free Taiwan Party and other Taiwanese instead burned an ROC flag. Though this caused the police to attempt to cite the Free Taiwan Party for a fire hazard, before being talked out of this, this also led to physical attacks by pro-KMT demonstrators who also gathered at Liberty Plaza, with pro-KMT demonstrators calling Taiwanese independence advocates “Japanese dogs” and “Han traitors,” as well as calling for the Tsai Ing-Wen and the DPP to step down.

Indigenous demonstrators surrounded by riot police in the 228 Memorial Park. Mayaw Biho is visible in the center. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Meanwhile, also in the early afternoon, at the official 228 memorial ceremonies organized by the government, which Tsai Ing-Wen spoke at, indigenous demonstrators including Mayaw Biho and other prominent indigenous activists protested nearby in the 228 Memorial Park, holding signs criticizing the Tsai administration’s failure to restore indigenous land rights despite its official apology to Taiwanese indigenous six months ago in which it promised it would do so, and also holding aloft stalks of miscanthus. Namely, the Tsai administration has not restored land currently in private hands which are traditionally part of indigenous traditional territory.

Indigenous activists stressed that, in this, they were not attempting to force the Han residents of Taiwan off their land and to “go jump in the sea” or to gain special rights over Han residents of Taiwan, but merely to seek the restoration of their basic rights. Indigenous demonstrators have been occupying Ketagalan Boulevard for six days as part of demonstrations against the Tsai administration’s failure to restore traditional lands to indigenous.

Indigenous demonstrators en route to Gongsheng Music Festival. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

After the end of the Tsai administration’s official 228 commemoration ceremony at approximately 4 PM, indigenous demonstrators subsequently walked to the nearby Gongsheng Music Festival and took the stage, giving a speech about their struggles, and holding a ceremony in which they burned the stalks of miscanthus they had been carrying. Indigenous participation in Gongsheng Music Festival is a regular event, in which the struggle of indigenous for the restoration of their sovereignty rights is seen as part of the broader rubric of “transitional justice” which needs to take place in Taiwan, so that all ethnic groups living on it currently can address the historical injustices which have been committed in the past.

Gongsheng Music Festival is Taiwan’s largest 228 commemoration event, taking place in cities in the north, central, and southern areas of Taiwan, and is primarily organized by young people. The festival primarily takes the form of a music festival, in which different civic groups set up small booths. Food, beverage, and books are usually sold as well, and soapbox speeches are held. Performers this year included Angry Youth, Maffine, Kingdom of Rain, Dwagie, and indigenous singer-songwriter Panay, who also performed at Tsai Ing-Wen’s inauguration ceremony, but since then has been at the forefront of protest actions calling for Tsai to live up to her campaign promises to restore indigenous land rights. Despite the rain and cold, participants numbered in the hundreds, if not low thousands, with civic groups including Taiwan March, the New Power Party, Radical Wings, the Northern Taiwan Society, Covenants Watch, and many others participating.

Gongsheng Music Festival. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

However, shortly after four PM, an unexpected assault on Gongsheng Music Festival took place with several hundred members of the Huang Fu Hsing branch of the KMT marching over from the direction of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial and attempting to disrupt the event. Members of the Huang Fu Hsing referring to themselves as the “800 Heroes” have been gathered outside the Legislative Yuan for some weeks in protest of the Tsai administration’s planned pension reforms which would reduce the pensions which former military personnel, teachers, and public servants enjoy in retirement as a product of the generous benefits that the KMT party-state gave to those who served it.

As such, though also a labor issue in that light, pension reforms is an unsettled legacy of the former party-state which the Tsai administration has no easy answers on. The KMT has seized on the dissatisfaction of those who have their pensions cut to attack the DPP, helped by the fact that individuals who benefited from the KMT party-state sometimes remain quite loyal to it. And this is particularly true of former ROC military personnel, seeing as the ROC military has long since been a bastion of China-centric nationalism. And the loyalty of elderly former military personel has sometimes shifted to China with the fading of hostilities between the KMT and CCP in past decades. Indeed, member of the Huang Fu Hsing who marched over to the Gongsheng Music Festival called participants of Gongsheng Music Festival “Taiwanese independence dogs” and in chants called for “unification with China”.

Members of the Huang Fu Hsing attempting to disrupt Gongsheng Music Festival. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Clashes broke out with participants in Gongsheng Music Festival after one member of the Huang Fu Hsing ventured past riot police to try and head directly into the heart of the event, near the South Gate of the old Taipei city gates. When participants of Gongsheng Music Festival tried to push him back to the other side, he swung at several Gongsheng Music Festival attendees with the ROC flag he was carrying, and knocked a Taiwanese independence banner to the ground. This prompted other members of the Huang Fu Hsing to venture past the riot police clash directly with Gongsheng Music Festival music participants, before both sides were separated by riot police.

Riot police were notably lacking on site at Gongsheng Music Festival to defend attendees from members of the KMT. The bulk of riot police were gathered in front of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial for fear that Taiwanese independence advocates would try to deface the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. Perhaps the Taiwanese police should place greater emphasis on protecting the people from violent assault by political fanatics, rather focusing on protecting structures which are symbols of the former party-state.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Regardless, the differences between the two sides was quite striking in the brief conflict which broke out, with geriatric, ethnically homogeneous waishengren members of the Huang Fu Hsing attempting to attack the mostly young, multiethnic participants of Gongsheng Music Festival, these young people being waishengren, benshengren, and indigenous alike. Perhaps, then, though unsurprising, this year’s 228 anniversary draws a stark contrast between the differences in ideals between members of the pan-Blue and pan-Green camp in Taiwan, the differences between a political camp which is dominated by an ethnically homogeneous elite, versus one with is comprised of a pluralized and diverse group of individuals, as well as the differences between an older, historically irrelevant generation and the younger generation which will eventually inherit Taiwan. Violence by members of the pan-Blue camp against those commemorating the 228 Massacre also occurred recently with pro-unification groups violently disrupting the launch event for a book by Dr. Chen Yi-Shen investigating the 228 Massacre.

Apart from that much of the KMT still largely sees its actions during the 228 Massacre and White Terror as either of no real consequence or largely denies the massacre, elements of the KMT is also willing to resort violence to silence those who point out its past historical crimes. On the contrary, the KMT and members of the pan-Blue camp instead try to bizarrely pin the blame to the DPP and to Japan, which it despises in the name of Han Chinese nationalism and continues to see the DPP as slavishly devoted to. This occurs by claiming the DPP is suppressing facts of historical massacres which took place during the Japanese colonial era, or even to suggest in contorted fashion that the Japanese are the true culprits of the 228 Massacre.

Clashes between members of the Huang Fu Hsing and 228 commemorators. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

But in conclusion, it still remains to be seen how transitional justice will be achieved in Taiwan. The Tsai administration has ordered the declassification of all government documents related to 228 and pledges that it will conduct an investigation into the 228 Massacre to determine the true culprits of the incident. Nevertheless, it does well to remember that most culprits of the 228 Massacre are quite well known, and are mostly dead due to age. On the other hand, many of the perpetrators of the White Terror and those who carried out the KMT’s authoritarian rule during the many decades of martial law which followed are still alive, and some continue to be active in Taiwanese politics. 

Despite its claim that it will seek out the real culprits behind the 228 Massacre, so that the 228 Massacre does not continue to be a massacre in which there are only “victims” but in which the instigators remain largely unknown, it seems unlikely the Tsai administration wants to rock the boat too hard in order to avoid the appearance of persecuting its political enemies. The Tsai administration’s current party assets probe into the KMT’s illegal party assets dating back to the KMT’s land seizures following the end of the Japanese colonial period has already led to accusations that it is abusing its power to suppress the KMT. Unsurprisingly, as a result, the Tsai administration claims it will reveal the culprit of the 228 Massacre in a “discreet” manner.

Police amassed outside of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Yet, as a result, the historical criminals who committed the White Terror may be let off the hook. Perhaps this was the price that Taiwan paid for a peaceful democratic transition, with the KMT allowed to continue to exist as a political party in spite of its past crimes, and in spite of the former party-state which was the bedrock of its authoritarian one-party rule. This also points to the continued tenuous nature of democracy in Taiwan as a recent historical development, in spite of Taiwan’s much touted “democratic transition”.

And so, it is unfortunate to say that seventy years after 228, one still does not expect many of the historical crimes in Taiwan to find any real form of resolution. Perhaps that is what this day should remind us of.

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