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Taiwan's Straits: Democracy at a Crossroads

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Taiwan is situated at a crossroads culturally and geographically. With linguistic roots in common with Southeast Asia, contemporary cultural influences from Northeast Asia, and impacts felt internationally in technology and business, the island straddles a number of tectonic plates that make it seismically active. Building in Taiwan has long had to account for earthquake activity in planning construction and transportation lines and it is located in a politically active seismic zone that makes its status in the international community one of some diplomatic prestidigitation at times. With a "modern" era dating from the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) beginning in 1945, Taiwan used to occupy the status of a human rights pariah on par with the worst in Asia. Coming out of the uglier times and into an era when multiparty elections were permitted, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (along with other smaller parties in the so-called "pan-Green Alliance") swept Chen Shui-bian into office as the first non-KMT candidate to hold the Presidency and it was held for two full terms. After the DPP lost the elections in 2008, there was a speedy campaign to hold their politicians accountable after the KMT returned to power. Taiwan had made steady progress on human rights, with problems persisting.

The Human Rights Action Center was invited to Taiwan to investigate the conditions of detention of Chen Shui-bian, the former president, in 2012. Inquiries in person determined that while the material conditions of incarceration were not what one would hope (in fact, marginally substandard to international standards at the time), that the State was denying provision of adequate medical care and that this seemed to certainly contribute to his illness and pain. Registering concern with authorities that would see us, only the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan and the Ministry of Justice agreed to meet with our delegation. No KMT (or other so-called "Blue") media would meet with our delegation in spite of attempts to reach out to them. We were sufficiently impressed by the wellspring of human rights interest and the need for human rights education that we pledged to return for another visit.

In 2013, we visited the former president in material conditions that were greatly improved. To our dismay, his requests for medical attention were still only half-granted in terms of access to his doctors and facilities. Our interests expanded to look at prison conditions at large, to examine the use of the death penalty in Taiwan, and to investigate the conditions of the LGBT community there and the HIV travel ban that makes the island one of the most regressive in Asia (and in direct violation of the recommendations of the public health community). Again, we were impressed by the breadth of interest of the people of Taiwan, particularly the young, in terms of wanting greater human rights awareness and a desire to push for the full spectrum of human rights. Again, we seek a return to Taiwan to build greater long term partnerships with individuals and organizations seeking greater respect for human rights on the island.

The pushback has been notable. Each of the articles that we've published on The Huffington Post has met with claims of partisanship by the KMT and attempts to deny our findings. We have maintained a non-partisan approach and have worked with individuals and offices who dissent from the line pushed by an increasingly unsupported President Ma Ying-jeou. The president has pursued a relentless line of harassment and has attempted to discredit those who deviated from his personal agenda. Silencing or marginalizing the offices who have met with us like the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan or the Minister of Justice hasn't been enough. In spite of single-digit approval ratings and with no hope of running for reelection, the president has been intent on refusing any requests for clemency, pardon, or medical parole for Chen Shui-bian in an apparent attempt to punish those with the temerity to depart from Ma's narrative. It is an appalling act for a Taiwan only scarcely out of the days when dissent was punishable by disappearance or erasure from the public eye.

Ma Ying-jeou has claimed an inability to pardon or parole Chen, hiding behind laws he manipulates to deny dignity to the man who broke the KMT monopoly on power. Not being legal scholars, the laws of Taiwan are somewhat opaque. However, given the strange proceedings during Chen's trials and prosecutions, the objectivity of the very legal system has been thrown into doubt. It is most peculiar that on our last visit to Taiwan that nobody even seemed capable of knowing how many cases were still pending against Chen or when they might be resolved. The current game plan seems to be to keep his prison looking pretty while denying him any particular hope for freedom. Ma seems hellbent to use the bad effects of incarceration as a sort of de facto death penalty for Chen and a warning to DPP supporters and any who would speak against the KMT line.

Now it seems that the president may have overreached in his attempts to control the peoples of Taiwan. In backroom negotiations that have come to the edge of challenging the ability of Taiwan's peoples to control their economic future and political rights, the president has attempted to railroad a "service agreement" with the People's Republic of China and it has come up fast against protests by the youth of Taiwan, the future of Taiwan. The Sunflower Movement has found the Cross Strait Service Agreement, and all that it represents, to be unacceptable and has protested the attempts to ratify it, occupying and disrupting the Legislature for the first time since the establishment of the Republic of China. This agreement, negotiated in secret outside of the purview or review of Taiwan's own Legislature, cedes a considerable portion of the ability to control borders/wages/trade impacts to the People's Republic of China and is a serious affront to self-governance.

How has Ma responded to the largest student protests in Taiwan's history? With savage violence, bludgeoning nonviolent protesters with baton-strikes to the head delivered by riot troops, clearing sit-ins with water cannons that make firehoses look like super-soakers, and menacing all elements of civil society that have bravely stood against this affront to democracy and expression. These are all elements of expression and dissent that were mobilized by Chen Shui-bian from the moment he took office and which still represents the vital hopes of Taiwan's people. These protesting voices are the future of Taiwan. The world can not ignore them.

Dissent against Ma Ying-jeou is growing in all levels of Taiwanese society from both within and outside of the KMT. Human rights are beyond politics and beyond party lines and those who have defected from Ma's orthodoxy have shown themselves unwilling to sit silently anymore. What is left to do to persuade the world that he is a tyrant more interested in his personal wealth and the apparent bidding of the PRC? Surely this is the time that the world might stand and join their voices to Taiwan's youth to say NO MORE, that such unwillingness of the office of Ma Ying-jeou should be opposed by members of the US Congress and Senate and by other trade partners in the developed world of nations that embrace human rights. Taiwan stands at a crossroads of whether or not to choose to observe and guarantee human rights at home and internationally. It is up to its people to decide, and it is the responsibility of the world to watch.

Write your representatives now (see www.contactingthecongress.com for more details on who and how) with an actual letter or phone call (emails are okay, but much less effective) and ask for support to watch the behavior of Ma Ying-jeou. Are you a supporter of the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Then you are bound to oppose the authoritarian and base reactions of the likes of Ma Ying-jeou and to speak up on behalf of principle. Support human rights. Free Chen Shui-bian. Listen to the Sunflower Movement. Empower the students, empower Taiwan. Support the students, support human rights. Free Chen, free Taiwan's future.