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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Chen case puts focus on Taiwan democracy

December 24, 2008

Taiwan News, Website Editorial Staff , Agencies
Every day for the past month, a number appeared on Taiwan’s nightly television news broadcasts.
It represented the days Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), former president, had languished behind bars in solitary confinement on suspicion of corruption and money laundering.
It rose to 32 before he was indicted and released on bail. Mr Chen’s case has captivated the 23m people of Asia’s sixth-biggest economy, crystallising a debate about the state of an ebullient democracy that in stark contrast to China, has made the transition from Leninist one-party state. His election in 2000 marked the peaceful transfer of power to the opposition after more than half a century of Kuomintang (KMT) rule.
Now the KMT is back in power after sweeping legislative and presidential elections early this year against Mr Chen’s Democratic Progressive party. Over the past month, every detail of Mr Chen’s detention has been chronicled by an obsessed media, down to the temperature of his bath water – often stone cold – to the quantity of thin gruel he ate when he finally abandoned a hunger strike against what he called political persecution.
The former president has admitted to wiring some $20m (€14m, £13m) in campaign funds abroad, but has denied breaking any laws. Wang Ching-feng (王清峰), who as minister of justice balks at suggestions that investigations are politically motivated, notes that Mr Chen’s corruption probe began when he was still in office. Mr Chen even appointed the current prosecutor-general. “These facts are testament to the impartiality of Taiwan’s prosecutorial and judicial system,” Ms Wang says.
Nevertheless, Mr Chen’s month-long detention without charge has ignited a debate about whether Taiwanese democracy – described as a “political miracle” by Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank president and now chairman of the US-Taiwan business council – is under threat as its new administration seeks to mend ties with China or if it is merely calling to account one-time reformists who went astray.
Scholars and former diplomats in the US have criticized the prosecutor’s handling of Mr Chen’s case, saying it gave the impression of being politically motivated.
Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Democratic Progressive chairwoman, says she fears that Taiwan is regressing to its early days of autocratic rule. The KMT fled to Taiwan from China in 1949 after losing the civil war against the communists, and maintained an iron grip on power for decades.
Ms Tsai says that because of this legacy, the nation’s institutions “catered to authoritarian rule”. Taiwan, she says, is still “a democracy in transition” and people cannot take for granted its ability to build on the free elections and civic freedoms for which people struggled. “What we have now is still the old system”, she says, arguing that prosecutors have too much power and are overly influenced by political considerations.
Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉), a political science professor at Academic Sinica in Taipei, says some recent incidents pointed to the deterioration of democracy. He cites “unnecessary restrictions” and “excessive force” used by police against protesters during last month’s visit of Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), the top negotiator on Taiwan and the highest level Chinese official to visit the island in decades.
That visit was the most concrete step in the KMT-led detente with China. It was also a flashpoint for political tensions, sparking sporadically violent protests by some still harboring deep hostility towards China.
Protesters claim police barred them from waving Taiwanese and Tibetan flags and restricted movements, prompting Amnesty International to call for an independent inquiry. Such was the furor over alleged trampling of democratic rights that Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Mr Chen’s successor as president, felt obliged to appear on national television to deny issuing any orders to confiscate flags.
Public criticism that Mr Ma’s administration was cozying up to Beijing at the expense of Taiwan’s freedom and independence was raised again this month when the president said it was not the right time for the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan. The Dalai Lama is a potent symbol for an island walking a diplomatic tightrope of de facto independence while being considered by Beijing a renegade province and inalienable part of China.
“Perhaps, everybody else in the world can say No to the Dalai Lama out of their own interest. But we cannot do that,” says Ms Tsai. “We are a victim of Chinese oppression everywhere but now we’re helping the Chinese to suppress the Dalai Lama.”
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