Taiwan President's Fall a Blow to Democracy
New America Media, News analysis, George Koo Posted: Sep 15, 2009
Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s first opposition leader to be elected president, is now the first president to be convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for graft, corruption, embezzlement, money laundering and perjury.
His wife, Wu Shu-chen, was also sentenced to life in prison for similar crimes. According to the prosecution, she knew more about money laundering than most drug cartels. Under her management, illicit funds were routinely moved up as many as 20 times to hide their source.
Many are surprised that Chen and his wife ended up this way. Most expected them to have long ago flown the coop for safe havens where cached millions await them.
Shih Ming-the, one time leader of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), can only express sorrow over the fate of his friend and former comrade-in-arms. Shih spent 25 years in jail under the Kuomintang regime and was one of Chen’s original supporters when he first ran for presidency in 2000.
But that support eroded. In 2006, Shih launched a massive protest against Chen’s blatant misconduct. Over 200,000 people held a candle light vigil in Taipei outside the presidential palace demanding that Chen resign. Instead, Chen withstood the public’s withering voice of disapproval and stayed in office until the end of his term in 2008.
On Sept. 11, 2009 after the court handed down its sentence, Shih publicly expressed regret that Chen did not step down when he had the chance. Had he resigned, Chen could have quietly left Taiwan, and all the sordid details would not have seen the light of day. Taiwan cold have been saved from having to contend with this embarrassing blot on its young venture into democracy.
Perhaps it was hubris that caused Chen and his family not to take their ill gotten gains and run. He probably did not expect to be held in detention once he was arrested — ironically, on the grounds of flight risk — so that leaving Taiwan under the cover of darkness was no longer an option.
Instead, Chen devoted his time in jail to making a mockery of Taiwan’s judiciary system. He went on periodic but highly publicized hunger strikes. He wrote books proclaiming his innocence. He and his wife selectively came up with reasons not to appear in court to disrupt proceedings whenever possible. He found fault with his attorneys and lambasted the judges.
Chen disowned any knowledge of the irregular financial dealings but accepted responsibility for not keeping track of what his family did.
Most incredible of all, Chen proclaimed that he was railroaded by the long arm of Beijing, complicit with the China-backed KMT party, in retaliation for his pro-independence stance while in office. He provided no evidence to support his contentions, but evidence of Chen’s transgressions was plentiful. His faithful, long-time assistant gave chapter and verse on how he and the first family arm-twisted Taiwan’s scions for millions and squeezed nickels and dimes out of every expense receipt.
When Lee Teng-hui, the first native-born Taiwanese to become president, came to the end of his term of office, he engineered a split among the KMT, which enabled Chen to win his first term with less than 40 percent of the votes cast. Chen then won a re-election squeaker with the help of a miraculous assassination attempt on election eve. The homemade bullet grazed his stomach, but more importantly, netted enough sympathy votes to put him over the top.
By the second term, it was obvious to Lee that Chen was more interested in adding to his personal wealth than in governance of Taiwan. Although both men shared the same politics on separating Taiwan from China, Lee publicly criticized the “son of Taiwan” as the “shame of Taiwan.”
The sentence of life imprisonment is, of course, not the end of the story. Chen’s case will be contested in successive courts of justice until it reaches Taiwan’s highest court. A drawn out process could take the next five years, and Chen’s misdeeds will be on display repeatedly before the people of Taiwan. Like fermented tofu, the salacious details are likely to ripen with further investigation and as more are willing to come forward to testify.
Chen began his presidency pledging clean government. Instead, everything was for sale -- including stars for generals desiring promotions. As his case, which includes new charges still pending, winds through Taiwan’s judiciary system, Taiwan will be reminded of his misconduct and his family’s involvement for years to come.
DPP, Chen’s old party, is in a quandary. A small but vocal group continues to insist on Chen’s innocence, convictions notwithstanding. Their defense is to attack the legitimacy of Taiwan’s rule of law and cast suspicion by accusing the current government of collusion with the mainland. Unable to unite in the face of these noisy demonstrations, DPP is in disarray. The challenge for the people of Taiwan is to keep the disarray contained and not allow it to spread and infect the entire island.
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