Saturday, November 15, 2008

Taiwan's Chen Shui Bian, political prisoner or just crooked politician?

A historic moment is being recorded in Taiwan, albeit not a proud one. After months of dodging and weaving, former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian was finally taken to jail on November 12 to face charges of corruption.

Chen is accused of embezzling NT$14.8 million (about $400,000) in secret state funds, laundering US$21 million in funds abroad and accepting as yet undetermined millions of New Taiwan dollars under the table from Taiwan businessmen.

He admitted that his wife transferred $21 million to secret Swiss accounts, but without his knowledge. Furthermore, he had done nothing wrong and the money rightfully belonged to him anyway.

Besides proclaiming his innocence, he mounted an offense accusing the prosecution and the judiciary of acting as pawns of the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) to turn him into a political scapegoat. Chen claimed that by discrediting him, the KMT hoped to discredit his party, the DPP, before the people of Taiwan.

While the leaders of the DPP opposition have protested the “undignified” arrest of Chen and questioned the necessity of having to handcuff him like a common criminal, no one among the DPP leadership has stepped forward to vouch for Chen’s integrity and veracity.

Chen was the 12th in the series arrested in connection with the investigation of corruption during his term of office. All the arrests that preceded him were members of his staff, officials that reported to him, or friends and family. Other members of his immediate family including his wife have been forbidden to leave Taiwan pending further investigations and court appearances.

The week before his arrest, there was another historic event when Chen Yunlin, Beijing’s chief cross-strait negotiator came to Taiwan to sign several breakthrough agreements and meet briefly with Ma Ying-jeou, the current president of Taiwan. It was a first for a Beijing official to meet with the elected leader of Taiwan since the Nationalist government fled the mainland and set up in Taiwan.

The agreements will increase daily flights from Taiwan to more destinations on the mainland and all flights will be direct and not have to detour over Hong Kong airspace. Direct shipping will be allowed as well as improved mail service and better assurance of food safety. This became known as the “four agreements.”

The agreements could prove to be historically important in furthering cross-strait economic cooperation. The meeting with Ma could mark the symbolic beginning of the eventual cross-strait unification.

For weeks leading up to this cross-strait summit, the DPP had staged a number of public protests in opposition and in the name of Taiwan independence and sovereignty. Chen Shui-bian, though uninvited by the organizers, was active and prominent in these agitations. The DPP led mob even trapped Chen Yunlin in a hotel where a hosted banquet took place and the Beijing official was not allowed to leave for eight hours.

Despite such vociferous protest by the opposition, polls taken later revealed that less than 17% of the Taiwanese population opposed the four agreements. Less than 26% of the people supported the DPP protest while over 59% did not.

After Taiwan’s security force came to arrest Chen Shui-bian, he made one last attempt to avoid jail by complaining that he was injured by the rough handling police. He was promptly taken to the hospital where the doctors diagnosed a slight muscle strain due to over exertion of his shoulders. He strained his shoulders trying to show his handcuffs to the media.

Since Chen became inmate #2630, he began a hunger strike, protesting that he had become a political prisoner of the KMT. Shih Ming-teh, former chairman of DPP and former political prisoner under KMT, dismissed Chen’s antics saying that his refusal to eat will not transform Chen from a suspect in corruption and money laundering into a political prisoner.

History will only have to wait for the actual trial when the case against Chen is presented in court to examine the full extent of Chen’s offense. If convicted, he could spend the next 10 to 30 years of his life in prison. If not, Chen will become the martyr of his dream.

The importance of Ma’s meeting with the Beijing official will take longer to assess. If the historic meeting and four agreements become the foundation of ever closer integration across the straits, the memory of first meeting will fade and be replaced by a succession of higher profile summits and official proclamations.
An edited version appeared on November 17, 2008 in New America Media.

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