What Thailand can learn from Taiwan’s last dictator

Today, Taiwan is often seen as a shining example of democracy in East Asia. Since the late 1980s, Taiwan has transformed from a one-party state ruled by the Kuomintang Party (KMT) to a vibrant multi-party democracy where power transitions occur via free and fair elections. 

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek fled across the Taiwan strait after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Re-establishing himself in Taipei, Chiang maintained that his Republic of China — as opposed to the People’s Republic of China — continued to be the legitimate government of all China. 

Chiang’s attempts to retake the mainland faltered, however. The United States, with no appetite for a renewed war between the KMT and the Communists, refused to support Chiang’s ambitious dreams to reunite China under KMT leadership. But the outbreak of the Korean War led President Harry Truman to resume aid and deploy the US navy to prevent a Chinese takeover of Taiwan. Thus the island’s security was assured. 

Yet the rump state that lived on in Taiwan was no shining beacon of democracy. The KMT, guided by Soviet advisors, had been organized decades earlier along with Leninist models. Indeed, upon taking power in China, the KMT had shown little interest in restoring a short-lived parliamentary republic that had been established in the wake of the fall of the Qing Dynasty. 

The ultimate goal, of course, was democracy; at least that was the official ideology. But the Chinese people, according to Sun Yat-sen, were “deficient in knowledge.” An immediate transition to democracy would be foolhardy, Sun argued; better a period of “political tutelage” under which the people would be prepared for democracy. “The Chinese people, being for the first time under republican rule, must have a farsighted revolutionary government for their training.” 

On Taiwan, this Leninist party-state continued to rule with an iron fist. Martial law was imposed in Taiwan at the outbreak of the Civil War, which Chiang did not lift after retreating to Taipei. The “temporary provisions” of the constitution aimed at “suppressing the Communist rebellion” were extended indefinitely, forming a Taiwan Garrison Command that detained, tortured and murdered dissidents. Political opposition was outlawed in favor of a one-party state. 

And so the ‘White Terror’ commenced: a period in which the KMT ruthlessly crushed any dissent. In particular, any movement that sought to promote native Taiwanese culture or independence from China was crushed. From 1947 to 1987, 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned and up to 4,000 executed. Chiang Kai-shek proved himself to be a ruthless autocrat. 

* * * 

It is unfortunate, from this tale of Taiwanese democracy, that Thailand is still stuck where Taiwan was in the mid-20th century: seen by elites as unready for democracy, needing the “tutelage” of supposedly benevolent military dictatorship. Palang Pracharath, also armed with the temporary provisions of a constitution that will allow it to remain in power for the foreseeable future, sees itself as responsible for leading Thailand through this period of guided democracy. 

And this state of affairs is even more remarkable considering that Thailand supposedly transitioned from absolute monarchy almost ninety years ago! 

But if the powers that be read this and think Chiang Kai-shek is a good example to follow, a better role model to follow may be his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.

After Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo initially ruled much in the style of his father, and indeed his track record pointed only to continued autocracy. He, after all, had been head of the National Security Bureau and was instrumental in leading the KMT’s reign of terror in Taiwan. Yet before the younger Chiang died, he began putting in place a number of liberalizing reforms.

In 1987, Chiang lifted martial law in Taiwan and allowed opposition parties to operate. The Democratic Progressive Party, which had been formed the previous year, were allowed to run candidates in elections as independents. 

Importantly, Chiang also announced that his successor would not come from his own family. “Some people may raise the question of whether any member of my family would run for the next presidency. My answer is: it can’t be and it won’t be,” he declared. Chiang instead chose the Taiwan-born Lee Teng-hui as his successor. This was especially notable because for decades those who had come from the mainland (known as waishengren) had suppressed native Taiwanese (benshengren)

Indeed, when Chiang was succeeded by Lee, Taiwan’s move towards democratization went ahead at full steam. In 1990, the Wild Lily student movement sprung up, with protestors demanding the direct popular election of the president and the legislature. Lee, welcoming students to the presidential office, promised to honor their demands. 

By 1991, Lee had forced the original members of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) to resign. These were derided as ‘ten thousand year legislators’ because they had been elected in 1947 when the KMT still ruled all of China and thus represented now-defunct mainland constituencies. Now, more seats were won and given to benshengren. Taiwan would then fully democratize in 1996 when Lee won an election and became Taiwan’s first popularly-elected president.

Taiwanese march in the streets outside the parliament in Taipei during a demonstration to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests on September 29, 2019. – Thousands rallied in both Sydney and Taipei to support Hong Kong democracy protesters on September 29, kicking off a day of planned “anti-totalitarianism” demonstrations globally. (Photo by Sam YEH / AFP)

Today Chiang Kai-shek’s memory is hotly debated in Taiwan — and indeed has become more and more unpopular for his role in prolonging repression on the island. Rarely is he invoked positively in modern-day Taiwanese politics. Public monuments dedicated to him are continually demanded to be removed. 

Chiang Ching-kuo, on the other hand, continues to be perceived positively for his role in liberalizing Taiwan. As scholar Yang Hengjun wrote, “We often see oppressed masses fighting and even sacrificing their lives for democracy and freedom, but dictators who ultimately stand up for democracy and push forward a peaceful transformation are a rare sight.”

Thailand’s leaders have a choice. It is undebatable that greater numbers of people are unsatisfied with the status quo. It is undeniable that attempting to delay these changes is simply an attempt to buy time — and indeed merely the postponing of even bigger movements that are sure to come in the future. 

The KMT was merely forced to compete freely and fairly with other opponents, which it at times did successfully, winning the presidency again in 2008 and 2012. The KMT did not lose it all. Neither would Palang Pracharath, if it were to agree to again allow Thailand to become a true democracy, would be welcome to compete in the free marketplace of ideas, in the pursuit of hearts and minds.

So what will they choose? Do they want to be Chiang Kai-shek? Or do they want to be Chiang Ching-kuo? 

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