Chen and Ma: Belated Birthday or Aborted Democracy?

Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian celebrated his birthday just over a week ago from a prison. An early activist to push people beyond the one-party authoritarian rule that was a hallmark since the rise of the Kuomintang to power after the civil war in China, Chen helped create Taiwan's main opposition party when the very act of founding was illegal and subject to consequences. In a meteoric rise, he became the mayor of Taipei and eventually the first (and to-date only) opposition president for two full terms. Since leaving office, Chen was engulfed in corruption charges and sentenced to a lengthy term of incarceration.

The Human Rights Action Center sent a delegation to Taiwan in 2012 to investigate the conditions of Chen's detention. We found that there was substantial evidence that his incarceration involved systematic medical neglect that both worsened pre-existing conditions and created new conditions, some of which seem bound to be permanent in either their presence or degree. We further recognized that the peaceful transition of power between opposing policies is critical to the functioning of democratic principles and that putting a former president into challenging prison conditions is not usually seen for charges of non-violent behavior.

This man, once vibrant, is now withdrawn and unwell looking. The renowned quickness of wit and charismatic voice is gone and has been replaced by a mere shell of his former self. There are numerous irregularities and departures that have been made from standard medical practice repeatedly during his incarceration, ranging from treatment refusals to examinations conducted under the most wildly rushed conditions. There have been attempts to restrict medical information releases to other physicians, the family, and the media and we can say that the motivation seems to be that of concealment rather than privacy. While we appreciate the transfer of Chen Shui-bian to "more reasonable" cell conditions, it is difficult to see what the motivation is to not release him entirely as a gesture of compassion, reconciliation, and perhaps an acknowledgment that the undeniable KMT abuses of the past weren't pursued with prosecutorial zeal because of the need for solid transitions of power and the development of a mature polity. Can it be so unusual for the KMT to consider the same concerns for itself and its future or is the larger party hijacked by a radical few, not unlike the recent Tea Party hostage-taking in the United States with a government closure?

Much has been made about Chen's presumptions of either innocence or guilt. While we think that innocence would imply a much higher level of abuse by Ma Ying-jeou and his cohorts, let us confront those who insist on his guilt and presume that he is in fact guilty. To those who protest his guilt, we say clearly: It doesn't matter. Even if one loses one's freedom under incarceration by the State, it doesn't have one iota of impact on one's human rights. Chen's treatment during incarceration has been excessive and not up to the presumed standard of medical care that one is required to provide to a prisoner, someone who is quite precisely under state control. But our concern is deeper than that and is simply that the sustained imprisonment of Taiwan's first democratically elected head of state from outside the single-party who wore the mantle of authoritarian abuse for decades does not bode well for Taiwan being a democracy at all. Let's put it more clearly: If you want to save Taiwan, you should want to save Chen Shui-bian. If he dies in prison, if he remains both broken and locked away from his family and not-inconsiderable base of supporters, the damage that will be done is real. Taiwan's democracy will die on the vine before fully blooming. Chen's supporters and other parties in opposition to Ma Ying-jeou, indeed much of Ma's own party members, will hear echoes of a much uglier time in Taiwan's past.

Taiwan has made many strides forward in regards to human rights in spite of certain areas of concern in spite of the persistence of gaps in people's equality, an increase in the use of the death penalty, and an uncertain future in balancing development concerns with the imperative to protect the environment and people's health. There are serious debates to have and these should be embraced with mutual engagement and civility across Taiwan's political divides. Indeed, the pending conference on human rights at Soochow University is a good sign of the potential for such debate. However, the recent behaviors on the part of Ma Ying-jeou to effectively try to purge others from their positions, to extend his grip on power beyond the end of his eligibility for elections, and to have refused our requests for meeting with his office in November are too concerning to go unremarked and bode poorly for the future.

We urge the Ma government to engage in the compassionate release and pardon of Chen Shui-bian, to respect diversity across and within political parties, and to embrace the norms of international human rights. We urge citizens everywhere to contact their own government to represent these concerns regarding these behaviors and to support forward strides in human rights in Taiwan and elsewhere in the world. We call on Taiwan's media and politicians on all sides to be available for discussions that are constructive and encouraging.

We hope that this is the last birthday that Chen Shui-bian has to spend in prison. We hope that this is the last year that the political polarization seems to get worse in Taiwan between parties. After an embarrassing shutdown of government in Washington, D.C., it is time to get on with the business of engaging in the daily life of politics. It is high time that Taiwan deserves to loosen the grip of a small minority of political extremists and allow civility to return to normal there too. We hope that Taiwan is able to transcend the current crisis and to join an international community where human rights respect is the norm, not the exception.