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Anniversary of deadly Taiwan riot

BBC News - February 27, 2007

Caroline Gluck, Taipei Commemorative events are being held throughout the week as Taiwan marks the 60th anniversary of what is known as the "2/28 incident".

The event was an uprising that began on 28 February 1947, sparked by the beating of a female vendor by authorities for selling untaxed cigarettes.

Between 18,000 and 28,000 people are said to have been killed in riots and a subsequent crackdown.

Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalists then based in mainland China ordered his troops to Taiwan to quell the riots.

Two years later, he and his supporters fled to the island after losing to the Communists in the Chinese civil war.

Looking for answers

For decades, when Taiwan was under martial law, the massacre was a taboo. Even in recent years, the incident remains highly sensitive and politically divisive.

It touches on issues that are the most hotly debated in Taiwan: national identity and tensions between native Taiwanese and mainland-born Chinese.

The passing years have done little to heal the pain for the relatives of those who were killed or disappeared.

Most are still looking for answers about what happened to their family members.

Lin Yen Mei-shu, 80, has spent the past two decades determined to find the answers.

Her Taipei apartment is a shrine to her father, Yen Chao-zhi, who was the chief manager of an influential Taiwanese newspaper.

A suit of his hangs in a glass cabinet; there are old black-and-white family photos and even yellowing books he studied as a student.

She remembers the day when five people dressed in black arrived at her house.

"It was March 12 1947 at noon. Five young men came to my house; they said 'we [want to] ask you about the newspaper company'; it was a very short conversation. My father left with them but never came back.

"For years we couldn't talk about it. My mother was very scared; worried that government police would come back to arrest us."

Only decades later did she learn from an eyewitness that her father was shot by soldiers.

She also discovered, after being anonymously sent official documents, that he had been falsely accused with others of plotting the 2/28 incident and being a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

To this day, no government department has acknowledged he was arrested.

"I've personally found the truth about my father and wrote about it in a book. But the government should do more. Families want the truth. But so much evidence has gone and witnesses disappeared," she says.


Last year, a government sponsored report, compiled by historical and legal scholars, concluded that Chiang Kai-shek bore the greatest responsibility for the killings of thousands of people in the 2/28 massacre.

Historian Chen Yi-shen, a researcher at Academia Sinica, was one of the authors. "Chiang Kai-shek, no doubt, is the most important decision maker. He sent the military, the army."

Most formerly classified historical archives have now been opened, though not all.

Mr Chen says more research is needed to find out about events.

"Most of them had no names... they were killed by the army, on the street, in the harbour.

"But we can find intellectuals, local leaders: they are named in the archives. No matter what, the government and we scholars must continue to find more and more truth about individual cases especially," he says.

He has also urged the KMT now Taiwan's main opposition party to allow researchers access to all its archives.

From this year, for the first time, explanations about the 2/28 incident are included in new school history textbooks. For many, that is a welcome and necessary move.

"Less than 5% of young people care about or know about the 2/28 incident", says 30-year-old Freddy Lin, a political activist and lead singer with the popular Taiwanese heavy metal band, Chthonic.

"But since you don't know anything, how can you stop another 2/28?"

A random questioning of young people walking past the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei bore that out.

I asked some what 2/28 meant to them. "A national holiday no school," declared one giggling teenager. "It doesn't mean much to me," said another. "I know what the day means but I don't really care. It's all in the past, it's all over."

But many young musicians like Freddy Lin and film-producers are organising an international music festival to mark the 60th anniversary called "Spirit of Taiwan: With justice we cure this nation". One of the aims of the event, which is expected to attract around 20,000 fans, is to push for the idea of "transitional justice" an academic term which refers to efforts by democratic governments through special legislation to right the wrongs committed by earlier authoritarian regimes.

The main leaders of Taiwan's political parties have said they will attend the event and sign a declaration of support.

In recent years the KMT has held commemorative activities and also offered apologies.

"Transitional justice is the way to move forward; to stop the hatred," says Mr Lin. "We need it. We need to reveal the truth of history; solve the problems and really go forward to have a peaceful society without hatred."

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