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President Tsai commemorates Human Rights Day 2017
President Tsai commemorates Human Rights Day 2017

President Tsai Ing-wen commemorated Human Rights Day 2017 with a special gathering on the morning of December 10 at the Taipei Guest House. In addition to thanking the people at home and abroad who supported political prisoners in Taiwan, the president expressed hope that transitional justice will become a collective social movement, helping Taiwanese face the past together and move toward a shared future.

President Tsai first enjoyed a violin performance by Mr. Hu Nai-yuan (胡乃元), whose father Mr. Hu Hsin-lin (胡鑫麟) was a victim of political oppression, and a choir performance by victims of political oppression and their family members. The president then awarded certificates of thanks to Mr. Kuo Zhen-chun (郭振純) and Ms. Huang Qiu-shuang (黃秋爽), victims of political oppression, for their donation of historical items. The president also conferred a "certificate of restored reputation" to Mr. Kuo Chao (郭朝), which his family accepted on his behalf.

In remarks, President Tsai stated: "We've waited a long time for this day." Eight special guests were on hand who went to great lengths, even putting their own lives in danger, to help Taiwan's political prisoners. 

Last week, the Legislative Yuan also passed a law promoting transitional justice. So as Taiwan's democracy enters a new stage, and on behalf of the people of Taiwan, President Tsai expressed her respect and thanks to the assembled guests. She then said that their contributions were indispensable to the mature democracy that Taiwan enjoys today, and that, "Taiwan's democracy will forever remember your efforts."

President Tsai noted that other countries have made the transition from authoritarianism to democracy and embraced transitional justice, with Taiwan poised to join their ranks. Our responsibility, she said, is to continue to strengthen that democracy. She also told the eight special guests, and especially the foreign guests who travelled so far, that the people of Taiwan will continue to defend their democracy, and that Taiwan is worthy of the risks they took to help political prisoners.

President Tsai then spoke about how each of the eight special guests had helped the people of Taiwan. She started with the highly respected former ambassador to Japan Koh Se-kai (許世楷), whose wife Ms. Lu Qian-hui (盧千惠) was also on hand. Mr. Koh and like-minded friends in Japan joined in the effort to save the victims of political oppression in Taiwan. But after saving people on the blacklist, he ended up on the blacklist himself. "Those were bitter times," she said.

President Tsai then related the legendary story of Mr. Gerrit van der Wees and his wife Ms. Chen Mei-chin (陳美津). When the Kaohsiung Incident occurred on December 10, 1979, Mr. van der Wees was living in the United States, and responded by devoting his efforts to seeking international assistance for Taiwan. He and his wife subsequently founded Taiwan Communiqué magazine to record Taiwan's determination to seek freedom and democracy.

Moving on to Mr. Masahiro Watarida, the president pointed out that after the Kaohsiung Incident, Mr. Watarida tried to carry information out of Taiwan, but was arrested at the airport and detained for 84 days. It's been said that during that time, his greatest comfort was the soybean milk served at breakfast each day. The taste of soybean milk has become his most unforgettable memory of Taiwan.

President Tsai noted that Mr. Watarida and Mr. Hiromichi Kirikoshi, who was on hand, founded the Taiwan Political Prisoner Rescue Association in Tokyo. That organization, made up of office workers and housewives, reached out to help Taiwan's oppressed democracy activists so that the democratization movement could proceed in the face of difficulties.

The president then saluted Ms. Linda Arrigo, who started out as a sociologist researching Taiwan, but ended up taking part in the fight for democracy. She saw Taiwan through a turbulent period, and continues working for transitional justice in Taiwan today. Quoting from Ms. Arrigo's book A Borrowed Voice: Taiwan Human Rights through International Networks, President Tsai thanked her for lending her voice to Taiwan.

The president then went on to thank Ms. Hsieh Hsiu-mei (謝秀美), who gave the outside world first-hand information about prison conditions by searching out secret notes left in the cracks of the prison's perimeter walls by her brother Mr. Roger T. M. Hsieh (謝聰敏) and other political prisoners. President Tsai stated that Ms. Hsieh and all the other people who took part in the efforts to aid Taiwan's political prisoners helped Taiwan escape authoritarianism and march toward freedom and democracy. "Thank you all for everything you've done for Taiwan," she said. 

President Tsai mentioned that the Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park was opened exactly ten years ago to the day, the first step toward establishing a national human rights museum, when a similar event was held at the Taipei Guest House. And now, ten years on, the Democratic Progressive Party is once again in power and enacted the organic act of the National Human Rights Museum, which will be formally established soon. An act promoting transitional justice has also been passed, so the legislative groundwork for transitional justice is being consolidated. This, she said, is a new beginning for our nation and our society.

The president pointed out that her purpose in bringing everyone back again, besides commemorating their efforts and expressing her thanks, was to invite everyone to participate in the next phase of transitional justice so that together, we can usher in a new era for Taiwan's democracy.

After the act promoting transitional justice was passed on December 5, some people immediately expressed concerns about changes to road and school names. But the president said that experience in other countries shows that transitional justice involves the past as experienced by whole nation and society. So it's unfortunate that the pain that we all experienced in the past is being simplified to a matter of name changes.

President Tsai indicated that true transitional justice is a solemn undertaking designed to promote reconciliation. To achieve transitional justice, investigating historical facts, overturning unjust verdicts, and communicating with society are imperative. In the future, a transitional justice promotion committee under the Executive Yuan will continue to sift through political archives and oral histories to investigate the truth about Taiwan's authoritarian period.

The president emphasized that the goal of transitional justice is reconciliation. For that very reason, when we investigate the truth, we will be as cautious as possible. We will not point fingers indiscriminately, because that cannot possibly bring about reconciliation. So she sincerely hopes that the imminent transitional justice promotion committee will create a conciliatory social atmosphere and space for dialogue, one of its most important tasks.

As an example, President Tsai mentioned the experience of Mr. Chen Meng-ho (陳孟和) when he curated an exhibit on Green Island, site of a former prison for political prisoners off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. A married couple, after completing their tour of the exhibit, introduced themselves to Mr. Chen. The husband was a retired employee of the Investigation Bureau, while the wife was the commissioner of a police department. The wife said to Mr. Chen: "Before martial law was lifted, my husband and I both handled certain tasks as the government instructed. We may have wronged people like you. So here, I want to express my deepest apology." As they prepared to leave, the couple bowed low to Mr. Chen, who gave them a hug before saying good-bye.

Noting that this story included important elements of transitional justice—speaking the truth, taking responsibility, apologizing, hugging, and reconciliation—the president expressed hope that the future transitional justice promotion committee will create more conciliatory scenarios like that for the people of Taiwan. Without an atmosphere of conciliation, there can be no transitional justice, and the legacies of authoritarian rule can only be dealt with through democratic means. These two points, she said, should define how we understand transitional justice.

President Tsai then said: "A dialogue unique to Taiwan is about to begin." She asked those from the older generation to talk more with young people about their past experiences and their youthful dreams. We need to transform the quest for transitional justice into a social movement so that, together, Taiwanese can face the past and move toward a shared future, she said.

The president called on the people of Taiwan to be brave, and move forward. Our country, and our society, are going to learn from past mistakes as we consolidate our defense of democracy and human rights, and ensure that history does not repeat itself. She then added: "I want our distinguished guests to know that we will not forget your hardships. Your past suffering has become a valuable asset for Taiwan's democracy."

Attendees included Secretary-General to the President Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chiun (鄭麗君), and President Wu Mi-cha (吳密察) of the Academia Historica.

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