Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chen’s arrest — terrible timing [UPDATED]

It didn’t take long for critics of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration to characterize the detention on Tuesday of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) on charges of money laundering and embezzlement as a “gift” to Beijing, as during his eight years in power, Chen, an ardent pro-independence advocate, was a thorn in the side of China. Others, meanwhile, claimed that this was payback for the large, and sometimes violent, demonstrations that surrounded the visit to Taiwan last week of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), while some saw it as vindictiveness, or part of a recent series of politically motivated arrests of opposition members by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government.

While the applicability of any of those suppositions has yet to be ascertained, the context in which Chen’s arrest occurred, added to the images, splashed over TV screens across Taiwan, of the former president being led from the prosecutor’s office in handcuffs, can only but fuel an already explosive political crisis in Taiwan, which earlier on Tuesday took a new twist when an 80-year-old member of the KMT set himself on fire in front of the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall in Taipei.

The fact is, Chen may very well be guilty, and if he is, he should pay the consequences, as should any former leader in a democracy and country run by law. However, given the heightened sensibilities of the opposition since Chen Yunlin’s visit last week, prosecutors could not have chosen a worse moment to arrest the former president, as it invites the kind of conspiracy theories listed above. Chen Shui-bian was not going anywhere. Even if he had tried to flee the country (hard to do, when said country is an island), he could easily have been stopped by border officials.

A wiser course would have been to wait some time and allow the emotions brought to a boiling point by Chen Yunlin’s visit and the clashes with police to cool down. Assuming for a moment that none of the theories discussed above are credible, either through incompetence, authoritarianism or a desire to humiliate its opponents, the KMT government nevertheless managed to inflame the situation, made matters worse in Taiwan and opened the door to other demonstrations, violence, self-immolations and who knows what else by people who fear the KMT is selling out the country to China.

Earlier this week, Ma said that Taiwan needed to remain united to survive. No sooner had he said this than the political divide was widened even further by government action. Ironically, through this latest move, the KMT may very well have turned Chen Shui-bian — guilty or not — into a symbol of government oppression and rallying point for the millions of Taiwanese who disagree with the Ma administration.

Associated Press later reported that Chen Shui-bian was taken to hospital late on Tuesday night, prompting the suspension of a court proceeding to determine whether he should be formally detained. The former president was reportedly undergoing examinations for a possible injury sustained en route to court earlier in the day. At about 3:45am, Chen was returned to court, where deliberations were held until about 7am. Chen was then taken to a detention center outside Taipei, while police strengthened security at the site after Chen’s supporters threatened protests. Under Taiwanese law, Chen can be detained for up to four months without being formally charged.

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