In 1981, the body of Chen Wen-chen, a rising-star of mathematics on a visit home from the United States, was found on the campus of National Taiwan University the day after he had returned from overnight interrogation at the police headquarters.
Only this month did his family get official word that Chen had probably been killed by the secret police. Suspected deaths like Chen’s that took place in Taiwan during the island’s nearly 40 years of martial law would have been consigned to the dustbin of history – but not for an investigatory body tasked with ferreting out the facts.
Modelled after truth and reconciliation commissions in Africa and South America, the Transitional Justice Commission was established in 2018 to redress human rights abuses and other atrocities before Taiwan became a democracy.
The commission’s probe covers the February 28 Incident – the 1947 bloody suppression of an uprising by native Taiwanese – and the White Terror, the martial law-era during the Kuomintang (KMT) regime of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo.
An electoral victory in 2016 gave the then-opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) control of both executive and legislative branches for the first time since the suspension of martial law in 1987 allowing them to muscle through legislation to empower the commission and declassify politically-sensitive documents.
Yet, the commission’s work has been made all the more challenging by the fact that the KMT remains entrenched in the power structure, and holds sway as the second-largest party in the legislature.