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Taiwan Remembers Feb. 28 Incident

Erik Mobrand, March 1, 2006

At a ceremony to mark the 59th anniversary of the Feb. 28 Incident, relatives of people who were killed display placards to protest the K.M.T. during a speech by Taipei's mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, who is chairman of the K.M.T. (Photo: Sam Yeh / AFP-Getty Images)

Taiwan has marked the 59th anniversary of the "February 28th Incident," a massacre that saw thousands of Taiwanese perish at the hands of the Nationalist (Kuomintang, or K.M.T.) army. The bloody episode, known in Taiwan by the numerals "228," continues to provoke controversy. This year, new debates over the 228 Incident have wriggled their way into politics on the island.

On Feb. 28, 1947, one and a half years after coming to power in Taiwan, the K.M.T. launched an attack on citizens rioting against the administration's rough methods of law enforcement. The massacre continued for several weeks, leaving as many as 30,000 dead as it turned into a campaign against village elites who challenged K.M.T. rule. The K.M.T., which had been driven out of mainland China by Communists during the civil war, governed Taiwan into the 1990's.

A Problem of History…

During the decades of one-party rule, which came to a close with the end of martial law in 1987, Taiwan's leaders suppressed talk of the 228 Incident. The episode was not taught in schools and was a taboo topic in public discussions. In the mid-1990's, then-president Lee Teng-hui — a democratically elected K.M.T. leader — offered the government's first official recognition of the 228 Incident. Since 1998, Feb. 28 has been a national holiday.

Now, after two decades of democracy, some Taiwanese are calling for greater attention to this dark spot in Taiwan's history.

For the first time since 1947, Taiwanese leaders have ordered flags to fly at half-mast at schools and government offices in observation of the holiday. The government plans to repeat this symbolic gesture annually, the China Post reported on Feb. 28. A march through the streets of Taipei, led by civic groups, was also held to honor the anniversary.

A report giving a new view of the incident has recently been published amid great controversy. In the study, entitled "The 228 Incident: A Report on Responsibility," a group of historians claims that K.M.T. leader Chiang Kai-shek was personally responsible for the massacre. Declassified official documents referenced in the book purportedly reveal that Chiang acted to prevent rampaging by the government and military only after being prompted by other party leaders, and that was already two weeks after the massacre began. Even then, the report maintains, Chiang failed to ensure that his orders were executed.

In the official version of events, culpability for the 228 Incident is pinned on local administrators and soldiers, not on top K.M.T. figures. Today's K.M.T. leadership sticks to that telling of the history.

…Or Really of Politics?

Leaders of the K.M.T., currently the opposition party, accuse the study's authors of being politically motivated. President Chen Shui-bian was re-elected in 2004, but his Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.) suffered in local government elections last December. K.M.T. members say the revised history is an attempt by the D.P.P. administration to win back popular support.

Chang Yen-hsien, president of Taiwan's Academia Historica and organizer of the 228 Incident report, responded to criticism, saying that the people of Taiwan need to discuss the event and assess who was to blame. Chang told the Taipei Times (Feb. 28) that studies of the 228 Incident, however controversial, are an important part of Taiwan's democracy, as they allow citizens to debate why the tragedy happened and what could be done to prevent similar developments in the future.

The report's publisher, lead author, and Chang are being sued for slander by K.M.T. legislator and grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, John Chiang.

Another, more concrete matter, is that some families of 228 Incident victims are demanding apologies from the K.M.T. and compensation. Although former president Lee Teng-hui apologized on behalf of the K.M.T. in 1995, current K.M.T. Chairman Ma Ying-jeou acknowledged responsibility at a memorial ceremony but did not offer an apology.

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