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Last Updated: Friday, 13 July 2007, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Remembering Taiwan's martial law
By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taipei

Some of the first Chinese-born Taiwanese returning to mainland China
Martial law was finally abolished in 1987
Taiwan will be commemorating the 20th anniversary of the lifting of martial law this weekend, in a series of events across the island.

Looking back on the occasion now, Taiwan sees it as a watershed moment in its democratisation.

Martial law was imposed by Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalists, or Kuomintang (KMT), in May 1949.

At the time, his government and about two million troops and supporters had fled to Taiwan after losing to the Communists during the Chinese civil war.

The emergency decrees were finally lifted by his successor and son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, 38 years later on 15 July 1987.

Yet as commentators wrote at the time, there was no jubilation or dancing in the streets.

Tough restrictions

Martial law restrictions prevented the formation of political parties, and allowed the trial of civilians by military courts on charges of sedition.

But even after the law was lifted, tight restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech and the press remained in place, having been written into a National Security Law, which had been passed a few days before.

Michael Shiao, sociology professor and policy advisor to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian
Economic and everyday social life wasn't so tightly controlled - but in political life, things were strict
Michael Hsiao, sociology professor

Taiwan's democratic transition - unlike the more violent upheavals that occurred in neighbouring South Korea and the Philippines - was relatively peaceful.

"One of the government officials said martial law was only strictly implemented 5%... but that was the core; they put a lot of effort to control people's thinking, people's reading," said Michael Hsiao, sociology professor at Academia Sinica and policy adviser to President Chen Shui-bian.

"Economic and everyday social life wasn't so tightly controlled - but in political life, things were strict. They put people in jail - there was no freedom of expression," he added.

The secret police, called the Taiwan Garrison Command, had wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone deemed to be critical of government policy.

The media was tightly controlled, outspoken academics and others were blacklisted and even hundreds of songs were banned.

"It was obvious how militarised this place was," said Linda Arrigo, who was a teenager in Taipei in the 1960s.

"There were military police all over the streets, signs saying 'Communist spies turn yourself in.'

"You would go to the post office and you would see them unravelling films, to look at every frame of the film. Even as a child, I met people who told me about students, people disappearing."

Survival through democracy

But by the 1980s, increasingly emboldened opposition forces and citizen protest movements had begun to challenge the existence of martial law.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - today's governing party - was illegally established in September 1986, before martial law restrictions were revoked.

"A lot of activities deemed illegal were then already very active," said Lai i-Chung, a university student at the time and now director of the DPP's department of Chinese affairs.

"People started to gradually grasp they are able to have a bigger range of freedom to do things, to mobilise and... to use that to gain momentum for political liberalisation.

Even as a child, I met people who told me about students, people disappearing
Linda Arrigo, Taiwanese resident

Antonio Chiang was the publisher of a weekly opposition magazine, The Journalist, which began publishing before the lifting of martial law and was regularly suspended, banned and confiscated.

"When people get old, some get stubborn, some get wise; we were lucky Chiang [Ching-kuo] got wiser," he said.

"He realised his time was numbered; he had no hope to go back to China.

"To survive, the party had to identify with this land, this people - so democracy was the only way for Taiwan to survive. If Taiwan didn't reform enough, there would be no difference between Taiwan and China - and then, why would the US, the western world, support Taiwan?"

Travel ban

One of the most important changes at this time, introduced just a few months after the lifting of martial law, was the authorities' decision to lift a ban on travel to mainland China.

Initially, it was a measure applied only to those with close relatives there - many of them elderly former KMT soldiers desperate to see their homeland and sweep their ancestors' tombs.

Veterans protesting
Many Taiwanese were disillusioned after returning to China's mainland

The travel ban had been in place under the government's 'Three Nos' policy: no contact, no negotiations, and no compromise with China's Communists - who were considered by the KMT, who still claimed to be the legal government of China, as illegitimate rulers.

"Coming to Taiwan was a painful experience," said 78-year-old He Wen-De, a former KMT soldier from a poor peasant family in China's Hubei province.

"At that time, life was difficult. We missed our families and we had no opportunity to return," he said.

"I didn't get a single letter from them after living in Taiwan for more than 20 years; the KMT withheld the letters. If I hadn't gone back to China, I wouldn't even have known about them."

But when they were finally allowed, these visits brought a range of emotions, and there were also social changes following the Chinese cultural revolution.

Many came back to Taiwan disillusioned, with heartbreaking stories of giving all their money and possessions to poor relatives, yet happy to return to Taiwan - a place they now saw as home.

Many analysts saw it as a time when people's sense of "Taiwanese-ness" began to really take root.

As a society today, Taiwan is still dealing with the legacy of its martial law period, and is grappling with how to right the wrongs many suffered during that time.

Even so, analysts agree that democracy is fully-entrenched.

"It's 100% democracy. People are not happy, but they are not desperate to go back. They have no nostalgia for the bad, old past. They want a good future," said sociology professor Michael Hsiao.

"It's immature, lousy, chaotic... But we have a democracy," agreed Mr Chiang.

"We have a vital media, a strong opposition, lively party politics and judicial independence is on the march. It may be chaotic, but there's no way to turn it back."




SEE ALSO
Taiwan to rename Chiang landmark
19 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan furore over statue removal
14 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Taiwan
07 Jun 07 |  Country profiles

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