Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Remembering the 228 Incident

Sixty years ago, on Feb. 28, 1947, began what would lead to the slaughter of between 20,000 and 30,000 Taiwanese during a security crackdown by Republic of China officers. The event, which ostensibly was sparked the previous day by a dispute between a cigarette vendor and an anti-smuggling officer, quickly turned into a days-long civil disorder and open rebellion against the corruption and illegitimacy of the regime that, since the handover by former colonial occupier Japan in 1945, had imposed its rule on the island. The distant Kuomintang (KMT) regime on the mainland soon sent reinforcements and in the ensuing days its officers launched in sometimes random, sometimes systematic killings. An American visiting at the time reported beheadings and rapes. The incident, for which recently released accounts now put the blame on Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), opened the door to the White Terror era, which lasted until 1987 and during which tens of thousands of Taiwanese were disappeared, imprisoned or killed.

As I write this, commemorative ceremonies throughout Taiwan are being held. Just outside the window, a procession is snaking its way through the streets of the neighborhood, loud gongs and cymbals and various wind instruments, accentuated by powerful firecrackers, paraphrasing the screams of those who fell sixty years ago.

Taiwan probably wouldn’t be what it is today without its own terrible formative incidents, of which 228 was, sadly, but one among many. Nor would it be the democracy it is today had it not been for KMT rule, however repressive it might have been. The fact is, nations must build upon the geography and history they are dealt and make the most of it. And 228, painful as the memories are, is part of that dowry. It is important that these events be remembered, dug up, and studied, that attempts to comprehend them be sustained and that future generations be taught them, as they constitute the very DNA of a people. By dealing with those memories in a peaceful — perhaps even forgiving manner — Taiwanese, as have other nations that have come to accept their violent past, can serve as an example to peoples who are currently experiencing political violence or will do so in future.

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