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Taiwan Marks 20th Anniversary of Lifting of Martial Law

On July 15, 1987, the president of Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo, lifted martial law, ending four decades of restrictions initiated by his father, Chiang Kai-shek. Jacques van Wersch in Taipei explores the causes and effects of the decision to lift martial law 20 years ago.

Shortly after Chinese Nationalist forces took charge in Taiwan when the Japanese ceded the island at the end of World War II, maintaining public order became a problem.

Lawmaker Tang Huo-shen of the Democratic Progressive Party, says the Nationalists disrupted a harmonious balance that had existed during the Japanese colonial period.

"There were very few thieves," said Tang. "When we went out, we didn't have to lock our doors. Back then, when the Kuomintang came, they destroyed a lot of societal infrastructure. That's why they needed martial law to rule."

Since 1949, Taiwan has been governed separately from the rest of China, after the Nationalists fled here following the communist forces' victory in China's civil war. They declared the island the Republic of China and were joined by tens of thousands soldiers, their families and others fleeing the communists.

China considers the island its territory and has vowed repeatedly over the years to retake it by force if Taiwan's government declares itself independent.

Tang says that under martial law, government control permeated every aspect of life. He says he never felt free or relaxed and that the lifting of martial law could not have come too soon.

Ambassador Stephen Chen, who retired as Taiwan's top diplomat in Washington in 2000, says some people are too quick to criticize the Nationalist Party. He stresses the need to put the period into proper context

"I must say that the martial law was definitely evil, but it was a necessary evil," said Chen. "To be tough on the part of government was necessary to stem, I say here, 'to stem' Communist expansion and to successfully defend the Republic of China."

Chen argues that once the threat from China receded, it would have been irresponsible to lift martial law all at once. He says the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who succeeded him as president, methodically prepared for democracy.

They began, Chen says, with land reform, followed by local elections, the establishment of compulsory education, merit-based entrance exams for higher education, and competitive civil service examinations.

As the island's defenses strengthened and its economy boomed, many people became frustrated with martial law.

The island's current president, Chen Shui-bian, emerged on the political stage when he defended democracy activists who organized a Human Rights Day rally in southern Taiwan in 1979. Demonstrators and government forces clashed in what became known as the "Formosa Incident." Although Chen lost the case, his arguments helped weaken the Nationalist government's image both at home and abroad.

Other human rights abuses cost the government support. Finally, the first opposition political party - Chen's Democratic Progressive Party - was established 1986. Its existence, despite a ban on opposition parties under martial law, made it clear that it was only a matter of time before martial law would be lifted.

In addition to ending restrictions on political activity, the end of martial law also made it easier for Taiwan residents to travel to mainland China. Now, the Taiwan businesses invest heavily in China.

Diplomat Stephen Chen says the lifting of martial law and the development of full democracy have made a big difference in the way the international community views Taiwan - and in the way China views itself.

"Because - of course other countries may be better democracies - but when you go to the mainland and say, 'You should emulate us,' they will say, 'Come on, you have been a democracy for so long.' But now when we present ourselves without even making any propaganda, they know the difference and it's impossible to dismiss us and say, 'Oh, they have been a democracy for so long.' Not so long," said Chen.

The Nationalist Party lost its control of the government when Mr. Chen was elected in 2000. He was reelected in 2004, but is legally barred from a third term.

The Nationalists already are campaigning for next year's election, 20 years after the party began taking the first steps to full democracy.