The veil of secrecy: abuse in the Taiwanese military

This month has seen up to 250,000 Taiwanese protesters demand greater military transparency. Pressure on the Taiwanese government to investigate the problem of abuse within the military is reaching a critical point.

Linda van der Horst
6 August 2013

The suspicious death of a soldier has sparked a public debate on the lack of transparency in the Taiwanese military. July 20 saw a crowd of 30,000 protesters dressed in white gather in front of the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence to demand the truth of the circumstances surrounding the soldier’s death. On August 3 an estimated 250,000-strong crowd converged on the Presidential Office, a day before the soldier’s funeral, to once again demand justice and transparency.

Like many other Taiwanese men, Hung Chung-Chiu was serving his mandatory one-year military service and was due for discharge on July 7. Against base camp rules he brought his mobile phone into the barracks, and was sent into the military confinement facility as punishment for this offence. Hung’s punishment involved strenuous physical exercise in the blistering heat with temperatures well over 30 degrees. Hung’s complaints of feeling unwell were ignored, and after a routine exercise following his release he collapsed in the barracks’ canteen. Arriving at the hospital, Hung could not be saved and died the following morning of heavy internal bleeding caused by severe heatstroke.

Hung’s death led to public questions over the circumstances of his punishment. The Vice Commander of the Army, in a press conference regarding the initial investigations, revealed several problems: the doctor who attended Hung was untrained, the confinement regulations were problematic, and monitoring personnel for his confinement had neglected their duties.

Even more problematic are clues that military superiors may have tried to cover up the abuse of Hung during his confinement. CCTV shows 80 minutes and 30 minutes of blank footage on July 1 and 3 respectively. In addition, the diary that Hung had kept has its last entry dating to mid-December 2012. There has been media speculation that subsequent entries were torn out when the military seized Hung’s diary after his death.

The aforementioned factors seem to suggest heavy abuse of corporal Hung on the part of the superiors in charge of his confinement. Protesters have argued that Hung’s offence should have only carried an administrative punishment, and that confinement did not follow regulations. Other activists have even suggested that Hung specifically brought his phone into the barracks to obtain evidence of corruption in his army regiment. Such speculation is feeding into an atmosphere of deepening public mistrust.

Hung’s death has not been received as an isolated incident, but instead has been perceived as indicative of more systemic flaws within the military. The military has seen the steady deterioration of its public image. Even though Taiwan has come a long way since the end of martial law and “white terror” in 1987, its legacy seems to have found a home in the veil of secrecy surrounding military practice. The professional military enjoys considerable privileges in relation to remuneration and pension benefits, but has not been subject to public accountability. The past ten years have seen twelve other deaths labelled as “suicide” by the military, with no public investigation into several dubious circumstances.

For the protesters surrounding the Ministry of Defence last month and the Presidential Office last weekend, the demand for military transparency and accountability is reaching a critical point. Military officers must adhere to basic principles of human rights. Especially since military service is mandatory, there should be greater transparency and accountability for the Taiwanese people. 

Taiwan has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and more recently (in 2009) has also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Fundamental to these treaties is the prohibition of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment. If the allegations are true, the officers in charge of Hung’s confinement may have not only abused their power but also violated fundamental international human rights principles. 

It is now up to the Taiwanese government to demonstrate its proper compliance with its human rights obligations. If Taiwan were to follow European examples in human rights law, it would be under an obligation to ensure a reasonable enquiry is carried out that is independent and involves public scrutiny.

The Minister for National Defence resigned from his post, before which he offered an official apology to Hung’s family members and the public.  The Minister has stated that considerations for military reform are on the table. For now, the confinement facility where Hung was punished is closed until further investigations have been carried out.

But the problem lies with the judicial action being taken. Although a civil court will deal with the allegations of tampered CCTV footage, the truth surrounding the abuse of Hung and the involvement of military officers will remain behind the closed doors of a military court. On July 31 the military prosecutors issued an indictment for eighteen officers for illegal punishment, abuse of power, and manslaughter for failing to notice Hung’s critical condition. Only one of those officers, Army Commander Chen, who directly oversaw the punishment, was indicted with abuse leading to death.

The Taiwanese public has little confidence in the independence of the military tribunal, and they suspect the military is trying to shift the blame onto lower-ranking officials. Protesters from last Saturday voiced their suspicions that four of the higher-ranking officers, who have been released on bail, coordinated their statements to incriminate Army Commander Chen rather than top-down command. Public speculation over military corruption is intensifying.

The Taiwanese government needs to initiate a proper transparent investigation, with suspects brought to a fair trial. In addition, an in-depth investigation into the wider problem of abuse within the military is sorely needed, as Taiwan looks to reform the military and increase enrolment popularity when it transitions to a voluntary service in 2015. 

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