by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Bernard Gagnon/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 4.0
THE KILLING OF Eswatini opposition politician Thulani Maseko by unknown gunmen should raise questions for Taiwan’s backing of the Eswatini monarchy, one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. Maseko’s killing came only hours after the country’s monarch, King Mswati III, threatened activists opposed to his rule.
Specifically, Mswati III stated, “People should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing them.” This implies that the country’s monarchy or state security forces were behind the killing.
Maseko, a human rights lawyer and writer, was one of eleven activists who previously faced charges of terrorism for writing articles on Eswatini’s lack of judicial independence. After his death, only journalist Maxwell Diamini is still alive, the rest having been killed.
The constitution was voided in 1973 and political parties were banned, as a result of which free and fair elections still do not take place in Eswatini today. Although Mswati agreed to constitutional changes in 2005, he retains his grip on power.
Maseko was previously jailed in 2014 for his criticisms of the judiciary. Maseko was also a vocal critic of Mswati III’s unilateral decision to change the name of the country from Swaziland to Eswatini in 2018. Maseko’s position was that the constitution had been violated through this action.
President Tsai Ing-wen meeting with Mswati III in October of last year. Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook
There were previously reports that suggested that the Eswatini government had retained the services of South African mercenaries, to provide aid to state security forces. Since the killing, the government has denied responsibility for the murder, however.
Mswati III has ruled since 1986. Mswati III retains the powers to appoint judges, the prime minister, and the majority of parliament, allowing him to dissolve parliament at will.
Likewise, the Eswatini royal family receives a large cut of deals made by the country, such as mining deals, which it receives a 25% cut of. The king has been accused of exorbitant spending for his family of fifteen wives and thirty children, while the rest of the country lives in poverty. Eswatini is generally impoverished and has a primarily agricultural economy.
Eswatini has a population of 1.5 million. With one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection, life expectancy has halved in Eswatini since 2000, with Mswati III calling for “sterilizing and branding” individuals with HIV in 2011.
Like Eswatini, Taiwan is also a country that has faced an authoritarian past. Political dissidents that called for freedoms of press and freedom, such as members of the dangwai movement, faced imprisonment or extrajudicial killing at the hands of the Taiwan Garrison Command during the martial law period. This includes free speech martyrs such as “Nylon” Deng Nan-jung, Chen Wen-cheng, and others.
Nevertheless, Taiwan continues to back the Eswatini monarch in return for recognition. Indeed, despite youth-led pro-democracy protests in summer 2021 reminiscent of Taiwan’s own past student demonstrations calling for democratization, the Taiwanese government turned a blind eye to this.
Demonstrations escalated after the death of a young protester in what authorities claimed was a car accident, but which protesters claim was a police killing. At least 28 were shot, with demonstrators alleging over 20 police killings, and gunfire exchanged between demonstrators and state security forces. Banks were shut down and a curfew declared, with businesses owned by the monarch in cities including the two largest cities, Manzini and Mbabane, as well as the industrial center of Matsapha. Tear gas was used by state security forces and Internet Service Providers have been ordered to shut down.
Instead, the Taiwanese government contributed 637 million NT in funds to reconstruction efforts after the protests in Fall 2021. Likewise, in October of last year, Taiwan saw a diplomatic visit from Mswati III.
Such hypocrisy should not surprise, however. Many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are authoritarian governments that Taiwan funds by way of “dollar diplomacy” in return for recognition, despite the fact that these are countries with questionable human rights records. So, too, with Eswatini.