The Shutdown in Taiwan: Ma Ying-jeou's Peculiar Obsession
Ma's predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, won power away from the dominant KMT for the first time in Taiwan's history. He ran on a ticket of Taiwanese independence, even as he moderated his stance upon election. Importantly, he was thought to not only be a voice against being assimilated into the undemocratic practices of the People's Republic of China but stood against opening the floodgates of commerce out of a fear that Taiwan's industries would be swallowed into the giant economy without strong enough worker protections. In the midst of all this turmoil, the former president sits in prison while having his medical conditions neglected and grows weaker with each day. A symbol of hope to some and a fool to others, his stuttering, shaking hands, and increasingly unsteady gait show him a shadow of his former self and yet Ma will not grant him a release or pardon. This does not bode well for a multiparty democracy that is untempered by regular transitions of power between parties, and particularly poorly for the KMT to be visiting such behaviors upon a former head of state who was the first to challenge KMT supremacy.
Though tied up in our own budgetary and healthcare debates, the American political system has sat up and taken notice. Democrats and Republicans have shown a rare bit of bipartisan concern over the behavior of the Ma government. Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are joined in this by Congressman Andrews of New Jersey in voicing their concern for the condition of the former president. Secretary of State Kerry himself was asked about Chen Shui-bian during his last testimony on the Hill.
With overall unemployment lower in Taiwan than in the United States, the figure to watch is one that shows unemployment among younger people (ages 20 to 24) to sit at an uncomfortable 14.77 percent, higher than it was at the beginning of the year. President Obama won two terms with the energy and power he was able to bring forth from this sector of American citizens, but Taiwan's unemployment rate surely spurs younger generations to leave the island to seek their economic future in other nations. President Ma seems less concerned with the brain drain that he is imposing on Taiwan's future and resulting financial despair, too busy removing the last vestiges of hope from a prisoner denied full medical access. This does not augur well for the stability and progress in transitioning to a mature democracy nor respecting basic human rights.
Mr. Ma has plenty to deal with in terms of matters of state importance and concern. He might consider the economic losses that future generations will struggle with or even the future reputation of his own political party at home and internationally. Let the press do their job without intimidation either stated or implied. Media intimidation has no place in a modern society. Importantly, acknowledge your missteps and send Chen Shui-bian home. Do it for your party's future. Do it for Taiwan to be able to maintain international respect for its accomplishments. Do it because it is the right thing to do. In a time when so many governments are restricting the observance of universal human rights, Taiwan stands able to be remembered for standing apart. The question is whether Ma Ying-jeou will continue to lag behind forward nations in doing the right thing or whether he will stand in the forefront of setting an example. At the moment, we fear that he is doing the former rather than the latter. We intend to return to Taiwan in November for a Human Rights Conference at Soochow University there and will arrive early to seek meetings with all segments of the political spectrum to inquire after justice and rights with regards to Chen Shui-bian's treatment among other human rights concerns in Taiwan. For the future of Taiwan and for the international observation of human rights, we urge the ethical treatment of the former president, the abolition of the death penalty, and the address and observation of other universal human rights norms.
An Open Letter to Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou
Posted: 07/20/2012 3:25 pm
I write you with considerable respect for both your position and your person. I also write you inspired by Taiwanese who I have known personally in the United States and have met with in Taiwan itself. It is in that spirit that I ask you to read these words. The former President Chen is serving time in prison for violating the law. He has served over four years since his conviction and has spent twenty three hours per day in a cell shared with another prisoner that is only six feet by ten feet. Permitted only an hour per day out of his cell, until recently he'd only been given thirty minutes a day. Mr. Chen's health is not good. His access to hospital finally allowed, the medical care he received was helpful but unable to fully survey his medical needs.
Unlike former Presidents Fujimori of Peru or Pinochet of Chile, Mr. Chen has no violent human rights record that he's been charged with. And yet, those violent former presidents have been treated better than Mr. Chen. In the United States, we have prosecuted and convicted politicians from the most local to national offices, but we do not systematically deny those people access to health care due to political differences. The political differences between your party's positions and those of Mr. Chen's party should not be used as a punitive weapon. In a functioning democracy, such behavior is an affront to the very principles that allow people to give mandates to governments.
Would it really harm the interests of Taiwan if you provided good health care to Mr. Chen? Would it harm Taiwan to provide a larger space for his incarceration? These two affirmations of human rights would honor the office Mr. Chen held previously and that you hold now. The individuals that hold office may come and go, but the imperatives for attention given to universal human rights standards should remain constant, even for those who are incarcerated.
Republican and Democratic concerns for former President Chen's health and treatment have begun to register in the Congress in D.C. This concern is likely to deepen and may soon include other former heads of state from various countries. If President Chen's health deteriorates much further, the choice may become more stark between a pardon or his death while in custody. Both of those outcomes would present stronger challenges to the Taiwanese legal system or the legitimacy of inter-party political transitions there.
Recently, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi , a prisoner in her own home, was allowed to run and win a seat in the Parliament. Even in her period of incarceration, the brutal military regime recognized her imperatives for at least some medical care and more freedom of movement. The changes that have happened since her release has resulted in the suspension of sanctions in Burma and an increase in esteem for her country. We would hope that Taiwan would have a strong commitment to the human rights that its people have valued and tried to protect, and that all of its citizens would be treated with the basics of medical access and livable space allowed. Denying such fundamental respect to nonviolent convicts is particularly galling. The people of Taiwan deserve a greater legacy and an adherence to the principles of decency. All of humankind does.
John G Healey