How the former Jingmei Prison was transformed again and again
The Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Culture Park in New Taipei City is a former military prison. It now serves as a memorial of Taiwan’s White Terror era.
This is a text I sent to the Taipei Times as a letter to the editor in early 2010.
For years, the debate surrounding the former Jingmei Prison in Xindian has been covered extensively in the media. Therefore, I did not know whether to laugh out loud or just bang my head against the wall when I read the statement by Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) Minister Emile Sheng in the Taipei Times: „We plan to (…) hear more opinions, look more into the history that the site represents and then carefully plan the future of the park“, he said – almost one and a half years after the newly elected KMT government closed the prison memorial and turned its management over to the CCA. Now, it is called Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Culture Park (景美人權文化園區).
If even foreigners like me or Michael Turton like me can grasp the meaning of Jingmei Prison, how can Emile Sheng after all this time of being responsible come up with such a ridiculous statement?
I visited Jingmei Prison three times over the past one and a half years, each time getting a valuable lesson about how Taiwan tries to come to terms with its past as a dictatorship – or not.
First visit: June 2008
In June 2008, the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial was still as when it had opened in 2007 – an impressive reminder of how authoritarian regimes can ruin people’s lives. But there were hardly any visitors, and I do not remember signs to help us find the place.
Second visit: June 2009
Some CCA employees reluctantly showed us around the compound, but did not let us access the cell tract, for fear of our safety. They said the previous exhibition had focussed too much on specifically Taiwanese political aspects, and the new one would also be about human rights in other parts of the world. I feared the worst, as President Ma also announced he „hoped to see a park where the public could come and relax, learn about human rights, and where artists could exhibit their works.“
By the way, why did Mr. Sheng not point to this statement when the CCA was recently attacked for art exhibits in the park? Obviously, he just followed orders.
Check out this excellent photo gallery on Flickr with pics and comments from June 2008 and June 2009.
Third visit: December 2009
In December 2009, the place was open again, now named „Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park“. Again, even on the weekend, there were almost no visitors.
Going there, I was relieved to see that the changes made werde not fundamental. The cells could still be accessed, as could the courtroom in which the „Kaohsiung Eight“ were sentenced in 1980 in the government’s last big-scale attempt to crush Taiwan’s opposition.
But I noticed some subtle changes that lessened the impact the memorial had on me.
First, in 2008 there was a video monitor set up in the Military courtroom. It showed photos of dozens of soldiers who had been sentenced to death in that very room – before and after their execution. Rarely had I seen such a spine-chilling and thought-provoking installation in any memorial I had visited. It is gone now.
Second, the exhibition in the cell tract now ends on a positive note: „(…) people in Taiwan have already stepped out from the shadow of political persecution and White Terror. Dawn of human rights appears in Taiwan. In the future, we have to go further for promoting human rights from political aspect to diverse aspects.“
Apart from the typically shoddy English translation, this gives the impression that everything is fine in Taiwan, as the political past has successfully been dealt with. Based on my observations, I would say this is not the case.
A German prison memorial
I come from Germany, where we have made our own experiences with all kinds of dictatorships. In Berlin, there is a memorial with a meaning quite similar to Jingmei Prison. It is the former Stasi (State Security Agency) prison Hohenschönhausen, where East Germany’s communist dictatorship arbitrarily incarcerated and tortured people without due trial – much like it happened in Taiwan, too.
Today, as some East Germans yearn for the „good old times“ when they had no freedom but their jobs were safe, school classes regularly visit this memorial and listen to former inmates talking about their experiences. There were more than 300.000 visitors in 2009.
Schools and teachers in Taipei and Taipei County (New Taipei City) should be encouraged to visit Jingmei Prison with their students, get a first hand impression of their country’s dark past and listen to people who had to suffer through torture and imprisonment. And if they do not want to come, it should be made a mandatory part of the curriculum. Only by confronting the past can people finally come to terms with it and will not fall for lame excuses like the one Emile Sheng just offered.
Taipei City’s 228 Memorial Museum: Not on the maps
Talking about hiding the past, there is one more striking example of that in Taipei: The National 228 Memorial Museum, as important a reminder as the Jingmei Prison, is missing from the maps found in Taipei’s MRT stations. While even banks are meticulously included, there is no indication that the 228 museum even exists. Little wonder, then, that is is also empty most of the time, as tourists cannot find it and school classes are not brought there. How about doing something about that, Mr. Sheng?
While I generally appreciate the Taipei Times for coming up with lots of exclusive stories, I must say that over the months, their coverage of the Jingmei debate was based too much on reporting official statements, instead of just visiting the place and documenting the changes.