Prepare to be seriously uncomfortable. This museum is not for the faint-hearted. It is gruesome, horrible, degrading, and yet strangely compelling; all at the same time. The fact that it exists at all is a testament to the vision and determination of some of those who were incarcerated there and who were prepared to work hard to ensure its success. It is a must-visit kind of place. But only with a must-be-prepared state of mind to listen, learn and reflect. For here, in this place, you will come face to face with what man’s inhumanity to man means in real life.
The Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park is the site of the former Jingmei Military Law Detention Center of the Taiwan Garrison Command (1968-87) where political prisoners were incarcerated, indicted and sentenced during Taiwan’s White Terror Era ~ the suppression of political dissidents following the February 28 Incident in 1947. Martial law in Taiwan lasted from 1949-1987.
The White Terror Era 白色恐怖 was indeed a very very dark chapter in Taiwan’s history. And it was not that long ago. Many of the victims and some of the perpetrators are still alive today.
From Wikipedia: “The term “White Terror” in its broadest meaning refers to the entire period from 1947 to 1987. Around 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this period, of which from about 3,000 to 4,000 were executed for their real or perceived opposition to the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) government led by Chiang Kai-shek. Most actual prosecutions, though, took place in 1950–1953. Most of those prosecuted were labeled by the Kuomintang as “bandit spies” (匪諜), meaning spies for Chinese communists, and punished as such. The KMT imprisoned mostly Taiwan’s intellectual and social elite out of fear that they might resist KMT rule or sympathize with communism.”
What is now the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park, in Jingmei, Taipei was the place where many of these political victims were held in custody, prosecuted, tried and imprisoned. These days it is part memorial, part museum, and is open to the public, free of charge. There’s a free audio guide in English with 19 audio-places to visit. I was there yesterday afternoon, and spent 2 hours wandering around, seeing everything.
The actual memorial is at the main entrance to the museum, titled ‘Imprisonment and Liberation.’ The victims’ names are added too, with the dates of their imprisonment(s) in white or, for many, the date of their execution, in red.
“With towering walls symbolizing confinement, the jagged monument penetrating the site of the former Prosecutor’s Office for Military Tribunal like a sharp razor represents the deconstruction of authoritarian power. The space between the directional folding walls narrows and widens, as if swinging in between states of imprisonment and liberation, before it eventually leads towards White Dove Square, that symbolizes freedom”.
From there, we move to the nearby military courts, set up as they were for the trials in 1980 of the leaders of the Kaohsiung Incident, which received widespread international coverage and media attention.
The 6 military barracks are now filled with displays and exhibitions.
But the most infamous building is the Ren-Ai Building, the actual prison.
Many of the rooms have displays showing what they would have been used for during the time they were in use. The guard room, where prisoners would enter the prison, and from where they would leave for their executions or further imprisonment, has a clock set at 4:04 am (the word for number 4 (四 sì) sounds like the word “death” (死 sǐ) in Chinese). Shackles hang on the walls.
There’s also a medical room and a small shop.
And the room where family members would have had the chance for a 10-minute talk (must be in Mandarin Chinese) to a prisoner via the telephone on the other side of the glass wall. All calls, all letters, all contact were of course monitored. The Chinese characters, 肅靜 (su-jing) meaning ‘Quiet’ are painted on the walls.
The cells also have displays of how the prisoners would have lived. The cells are small, cramped, smelly. Many were kept in solitary confinement. Others had padded cells in case of self-inflicted violence. All were very hot and humid in summer, and damp and horrible in winter.
The prison guard has his own cell, nicely done out with bed and desk and even a closet for clothes.
Outside are the exercise yards.
On the other side are the work rooms. Some of the lower-risk prisoners had jobs working maybe 10 hours a day in the prison laundry, washing, ironing, folding clothes and sheets, not just for the prison, but also for other government agencies, like the military hospital. There’s also the boiler room, the canteen, the library, and an exhibition.
The main entrance to the prison…
When I visited yesterday, there was a group of about 15 people on the guided tour that starts each day at 2:30 pm, and there were also a small number of family groups going around on their own. The place is hardly over-visited. It is also not exactly easy to get to, a 20-minute-walk from the nearest MRT station (Dapinglin) and 15 minutes from the nearest You Bike station. Instagram shows some school groups visiting, but not many.
But it is well worth visiting. This aspect of Taiwan’s history is uncomfortable for many. In May 2016, as part of her inaugural address, Taiwan new president, Tsai Ing-Wen announced plans to set up a truth and reconciliation committee, to “address the historical past in the most sincere and cautious manner. The goal of transitional justice is to pursue true social reconciliation, so that all Taiwanese can take to heart the mistakes of that era.” In December 2017, the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice 促進轉型正義條例 was passed. However, a lot of people remain less than enthusiastic, and many questions remain, well explained in this article here. What to do with the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial is part of that debate, and due to its prime location and appeal to tourists, it is one that brings forth many and varied opinions.
Many of the prisoners from Jingmei went on to serve their sentences in the prison on Green Island, off Taiwan’s SE coast. Watch this space – we hope to visit!
A few months ago I visited Cambodia’s Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (see that report here). Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to visit the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park and learn a bit more about Taiwan’s darkest era. Ah, Cambodia AND Taiwan. Both went through hell. Both are trying to come to terms with what happened. But visiting a country and living in a country are 2 different things – and call for 2 different responses. The scale was different, and it is difficult not to compare the two, and in doing so, there’s a risk of trivializing Taiwan’s own experiences. For those in Taiwan who suffered during the White Terror era, it was a long and terrible nightmare, and what happened at military detention centers such as Jingmei will haunt Taiwan for generations to come.
The Christian faith teaches that confession, forgiveness and reconciliation are part of the process of healing. Jesus’ words, “The truth will set you free” are part of that teaching. Chinese culture emphasizes harmony, often at the expense of truth. But it is only when the truth is told and justice is brought, so healing can begin, reconciliation be achieved and true harmony descends.
Prayers requested. For Taiwan. For us all. And for God’s mercy to prevail.
Updated on May 11, 2018: for my post on our visit to Green Island, including the visit to the prisons there, please see the link here
Updated again on May 19, 2018: today’s Taipei Times is reporting here on the official opening of the Jingmei Human Rights Museum that took place yesterday, the day after the official opening of the Green Island Human Rights Museum, both run by the same government department.