Chen Shin-chi smiles through his dentures and drops down to the dusty floor of a jail cell to do a push up. He looks up at the crowd watching him, smiles again, and flips on his back to perform sit-ups, his body stretching almost the entire length of the three-by-two-meter cell. In 1968, he lived in one of these windowless boxes for four months during his five-year imprisonment by the then-authoritarian Taiwanese government. Today he gives tours of his former hell, now a human rights museum 10 minutes outside Taipei.
Chen was one of tens of thousands of suspected spies and Communists who were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the Taiwanese authoritarian government during a brutal, four-decade period of martial law known on this island nation as the White Terror. It was one of the longest periods of martial law in the world. 25 years after that authoritarian regime abruptly ended in 1987, a nascent and partisan democracy is still struggling to address its past. (This past week, Taiwan celebrated the 101st anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China -- though there was little mention of the victims of past human rights abuses.)
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Taiwan has never had a non-partisan truth and reconciliation process. No democratically-elected president has formally suggested one, according to human rights advocates and government officials. Instead, transitional justice has been left to the politicians of Taiwan's two main competing political parties to implement as they see fit. "Human rights [in Taiwan] has become a political battlefield," says Lung Ying-tai, a famous Taiwanese cultural icon who was recently appointed the head of the nation's newly formed Ministry of Culture. "They chose whatever would bring them immediate credit. It's calculating."
The Nationalist Party that ruled Taiwan both in martial law and guided it to democracy mostly avoided the topic of its bloody past. Democracy didn't come easy or naturally for the former authoritarian government, Lung says: "There was a slow, loosening up of the island." It took intense social pressure to push the country's first democratically elected-president, Lee Teng-hui, to form a committee to look into a massacre committed by the Nationalists in 1947 that launched the White Terror. In some ways, he was no different from all the others in the country who couldn't believe martial law was really over, says Naiteh Wu, a Taiwanese researcher and human-rights advocate: "Lee Teng-hui was still struggling with his own past at the time he became president."
And the pro-independence opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), hasn't had it much easier. A monumental shift in the political landscape occurred when the DPP, headed by the fiery, staunch anti-China president, Chen Shui-bian, was elected in 2000. The country assumed that his election would also change the transitional justice process because of his record as a pro-democracy activist while Taiwan was still under martial law. But as Wu and others like him began digging into the pasts of victims of the White Terror, they found that many had made proud declarations of their Communist ties on their deathbeds -- meaning that the prisoners were, in fact, guilty of the formal charges the Nationalist government had brought against them.