‘Facing up to history’: relatives of Taiwan’s 2-28 massacre victims demand official reckoning

<span>Lin Li-cai's father was murdered by KMT government troops in Taiwan, in what is now known as the 2-28 massacres which began on 28 February 1947.</span><span>Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian</span>
Lin Li-cai's father was murdered by KMT government troops in Taiwan, in what is now known as the 2-28 massacres which began on 28 February 1947.Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian

Lin Li-cai was only two years old when her father was murdered. She knew almost nothing about his death until she was an adult. “There used to be a picture of my father hanging in the living room, but I didn’t even know who it was,” says Lin, now 80.

She has no memory of the events and throughout her childhood his death was mentioned just twice. The first was when her uncle warned her: “Don’t talk about what happened to your father, otherwise the police will come get you.” The second was in elementary school when a teacher saw the date of his death on her file, and told Lin she would have to study and work very hard.

Sitting in a quiet room of a museum dedicated to people like her father, Lin is hard of hearing but speaks confidently. As she speaks, her hands unconsciously rifle through a folder containing documents and photos of her father.

He was a victim of Taiwan’s 2-28 massacres, a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests by troops of the Kuomintang (KMT) Republic of China government in 1947, which had been given control of Taiwan after Japan was defeated in the second world war.

Related: ‘Something wrong, something good’: Taiwan grapples with remembering Chiang Kai-shek

Historical estimates say between 18,000 and 28,000 people were killed or disappeared after anti-government protests began on 28 February in Taipei and spread across the country. Individuals were taken from their homes and workplaces and tortured, disappeared, jailed, or summarily executed. It set off almost four decades of martial law known as the White Terror, under KMT generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

Now democratic, Taiwan marks the anniversary of 2-28 each year and there are dedicated memorial museums, parks and statues. On Sunday Taiwan’s premier, Chen Chien-jen, unveiled a statue at the executive yuan, officially designating the government building a 2-28 “historical site of injustice”.

“It is time for us to recognise rights abuses and atrocities by past governments. By restoration and facing up to history, we can go on to sustain peace and justice for all,” Chen said, ahead of Wednesday’s anniversary.

Killed with impunity

But a full and formal national reckoning with 2-28’s legacy remains complicated and politicised.

Lin’s family’s story is typical. On 6 March 1947 Lin Jie and colleagues from the city council went to the Kaohsiung military office to negotiate for peace between the soldiers and protesters. But in response soldiers were sent down to city hall where they shot and threw grenades at protesters sheltering inside, killing at least 50, and Lin and others were detained, tortured, and – about a fortnight later – executed.

Lin Jie’s brother and wife searched for days. The brother was threatened and humiliated. His wife eventually found her husband’s body under a pile of rubble in front of the office, fainting at the sight.

He was killed with impunity, and his family kept their heads down during martial law. The death was never discussed, and eight years later, Lin’s mother took her own life.


Lin only learned her family’s history in the 1990s, and has spent the decades since working as an advocate, seeking justice against the KMT and better understanding among the public.

Today, Lin Jie’s execution is among dozens highlighted in new exhibitions at Taipei’s 228 Memorial Museum, one of several White Terror museums across Taiwan. A wall map details incidents across the south, after the protests and retaliatory crackdowns spread from Taipei. Artworks depict numerous massacres, including the grenade attack on the protesters Lin Jie had sought to protect.

Ye Zong-Xin, the museum’s coordinator, says the exhibits were motivated by what they saw as gaps in formal education about 2-28, and increasingly polarised discussion of the time and its legacy.

“Online I saw that extreme speech has increased, and become more divided,” he says. “There are a lot of sites we pass by every day where executions happened. It’s important to know this.”

There are many examples around the world of transitional justice models established to deal with states’ crimes against their own people, including truth and reconciliation commissions, prosecutions, legislated restrictions on former collaborators participating in society, and amnesties.

But Michelle Kuo, a Taiwan-based author and academic, says Taiwan has diverged from both the restorative justice model provided by South Africa and more punitive paths in eastern Europe.

“Unlike these countries, where the party wielding authoritarian power was disbanded, the KMT remains a major political party, albeit currently in opposition.”

Perpetrators have not been brought to justice, and the truth of what happened in many cases – including the shocking 1980 murder of democratic activist Lin Yi-hsiung’s mother and his six-year-old twins – still has not come out.

‘Refusing to talk about history’

Successive governments in Taiwan have made some efforts to address the history. In 1990 the KMT-led government, under the presidency of Lee Teng-hui, established an investigation into 2-28. In 1995 Lee formally apologised on behalf of the government and launched a redress scheme. In 2016 the Democratic Progress party (DPP) government, which was born out of the anti-authoritarian movement, established the transitional justice commission, with powers to investigate crimes committed under KMT rule. But victims’ families have expressed frustrations with the DPP which they say has not done enough.

Professor Cheng-yi Huang, from Taiwan’s Academica Sinica, says the KMT offered financial compensation as a deliberate strategy to avoid truth-seeking, to give money while “refusing to talk about history”, and that there is little appetite from either party to address the awkward fact that so many victims were suspected or actual supporters of the Communist party – an entity that is now threatening Taiwan’s existence.

For Lin, the KMT of today is the KMT that killed her father.

The KMT has apologised for the White Terror regime but held on to its name and other parts of its past, creating what Huang calls a “paradoxical ideology”.

“They apologise for the dark side, but they want people to recognise their achievements in bringing Taiwan’s prosperity and security,” he says, referencing Taiwan’s economic boom under Chiang’s rule.

Kuo says the KMT also frequently politicises attempts at redress. “The KMT has insisted that it has changed … but it also claims that transitional justice is a partisan project rather than a national one,” she wrote last week.

The hope of advocates like Lin and educators like Ye, Huang and Kuo seems increasingly distant, as political divisions widen, and those who lived through the White Terror – or perpetrated its crimes – grow older.

Huang says Taiwan can reckon with its legacy of authoritarianism through real transitional justice, but it is being stymied by partisan politics and a collective “historical amnesia” in which people distance their own lives from the “others” who were directly affected by Chiang’s rule, or retain the White Terror-era fear of speaking out.

“When 2-28 [memorialising] became a political ritual, many people believed it was no longer necessary to remember the past,” he says.

“This is a crisis for our democracy … When people care less about the past, about what has been done by the authoritarian government, it means people are actually trying to pretend that we don’t have that kind of atrocity or political oppression in our history.”