Martial law victims urge young people to cherish Taiwan's hard-won democracy

Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun (second from left) at National Human Rights Museum.

Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun (second from left) at National Human Rights Museum. (CNA photo)

Survivors of atrocities committed during Taiwan's period of martial law on Saturday (Dec. 7) exhorted younger generations to cherish the country's hard-earned democracy at a ceremony to mark the upcoming United Nations-designated Human Rights Day.

One of the survivors, 81-year-old Yang Tien-lang (楊田郎), said he was arrested in 1955 at the age of 17 for allegedly "spreading propaganda for traitors" while working as a newspaper delivery boy. His superiors reported that he had scrawled subversive slogans such as "overthrow Chiang Kai-shek" and "join the Communist Party" on the wall of a theater, Yang said.

"I was taken to a police station in 1955 on the back of a police bicycle," he said at the Human Rights Day celebrations at the National Human Rights Museum in Taipei. Yang said that during questioning at the police station, he was tricked into signing a confession after his interrogators told him that if he confessed they would let him go as he was a minor.

Instead of being released, however, he was put in jail, he said. "You should cherish Taiwan's hard-earned democracy and live well," Yang said, addressing the young people at the Human Rights Day event.

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) moved the Republic of China government to Taiwan after losing a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party and declared martial law the same year. It was not until 1987 that martial law was lifted in Taiwan by his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國).

Some Taiwanese historians refer to the period of martial law as the "White Terror" era, in which tens of thousands of citizens were imprisoned or executed on false accusations. One of those citizens is 80-year-old Chen Chiu-hsiung (陳久雄), who said he was arrested in 1952 at the age of 13 along with other villagers suspected of being communist guerrillas in a mountainous area in northern Taiwan.

"Almost all the villagers were apprehended, and I was the last one arrested," Chen said. At that age, he said, he had no idea what was happening and only wanted to learn self-defense skills and sing with the older villagers in their straw huts.

Without any court hearing, Chen said, he was sent to a secret government outpost, where he was made to serve as an errand boy for more than seven years. His pleas to be allowed to return home were ignored, but at the age of 20, he was permitted to visit his ailing father, and he never returned to the outpost, Chen said.

Another White Terror victim, Huang Hsin-hua (黃新華), said she was born in prison in 1952 after her mother was arrested and jailed. Huang said that when she was nine months old, her father was executed on accusations of involvement with communist groups.

She said that regrettably, over the years, she never tried to understand or comfort her mother, who died two years ago.

"It is painful because she never received a hug from me," Huang said. "But I know she will forgive me. She taught me how to see the world with love."

The Human Rights Day event, organized by the Ministry of Culture and the National Human Rights Museum, was attended by some 200 survivors of martial law-era atrocities and their relatives, as well as by Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) and Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chiun (鄭麗君). Speaking at the event, Chen promised that the Taiwanese government would restore historical truth and transitional justice to the victims.

Also at the ceremony, several relatives of victims donated their mementos such as harmonicas, paintings, and documents, to the museum.

As part of its commemoration of Human Rights Day, the museum is scheduled to hold forums and concerts over the weekend. It is also holding an exhibition on the Kaohsiung Incident, a government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators on Dec. 10, 1979, from Dec. 7 to Sept. 30, 2020.