2016 will probably go into history as the year that everything changed in Taiwan. For only the second time, the island’s voters ended a period of Kuomintang government and elected a representative of the Democratic Progressive Party to become president. What is different this time around, is that the DPP also won an absolute majority of seats at the Legislative Yuan, an unprecedented event.
As a result, President Tsai Ing-wen will have the leeway necessary to put her policy proposals into practice, be they related to social reforms, economic recovery, relations with China or government transparency.
One of the topics most often discussed during this period has been “transitional justice,” a term which covers a wide range of topics and issues, including the victims of the 228 Incident and the White Terror, and the contested KMT assets.
While the scope, size and nature of “transitional justice” still remains to be determined, a clear example of a leftover from the old era that should be changed has been delivered by the military police.
The Military Security Brigade under the Ministry of National Defense sent military police over to the home of a “Mister Wei” in New Taipei City, where it conducted a search without warrant for alleged confidential documents.
As the man’s daughter posted the news online, a nationwide uproar broke out, and not just because of the absence of a warrant. The whole procedure reminded most people of the era of Martial Law, which was abolished in 1987.
If the authorities had suspected the documents were confidential and had been leaked, making a house search necessary, they should have applied for a warrant and sent in regular police or prosecutors, the consensus goes.
It’s not just the lack of a warrant which provoked comparisons with the Martial Law era, or with the White Terror period of the late 1940s and 1950s, during which scores of dissidents, prisoners and often innocent civilians were detained and executed or disappeared.
The fact that military police had been used to target a civilian also led many to draw a parallel with bygone times. In a normal democratic country, military police exist to track down crime in or by the military. In most western democracies, while military police still exist, most average citizens have never seen them because they operate inside the military system and do not appear in the streets.
In Taiwan, before Martial Law ended, military police could still be seen, sitting four to a car, with bayonets on their guns, driving around town and only leaving their car to check on buildings.
They would also stand around at intersections before the presidential motorcade rushed through.
Those tasks have now been taken over by regular police, with no loss of efficiency.
Another element in the Wei case which should not have led to the involvement of the military police is the nature of the documents in play. While reportedly confidential, the papers would not endanger national security if they were leaked to civilian outsiders.
The documents were related to the 228 Incident and the White Terror, and did therefore not bear any relevance to today’s defense conditions.
Over the past years, Taiwan has been plagued by officers passing on information to China mostly in return for financial rewards. Those incidents damaged national security because they revealed confidential details about the country’s defense capabilities and their technical aspects. Allowing China to have access to the information has weakened Taiwan’s defenses.
However, such would not have been the case with the documents involved in the Wei case. The data were related to Taiwan’s history, to its violent past related to the 228 Incident, not to its present defense situation or to sophisticated weapons systems.
Therefore, the practices such as the search without warrant and the mobilization of the military police were completely unnecessary.
Lawmakers have gone as far as demanding the abolition of the Military Security Brigade, the body which planned the search of the Wei home. In addition to not applying for a warrant, the group also pretended it was looking to buy Chinese tea in order to trick Wei into meeting them. There are also still questions about a consent form he reportedly signed.
The investigation into the precise circumstances and motives of the search is still under way, with civilian prosecutors inviting the main players over for talks on a nearly daily basis.
Taiwan should become a normal country, where the military serves to defend the nation and stays out of domestic affairs, and certainly out of policing matters.
All civilians and military personnel can only hope that for the sake of human rights and democracy, the new administration will clearly delineate the functions and duties of the military and of the military police in a modern society. Whatever “transitional justice” alludes to, a contemporary democracy like Taiwan should no longer tolerate excessive military interference in its daily life.