The democratic island of Taiwan will close its huge memorial hall to late Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek for one day on Tuesday as a mark of respect to the victims of a massacre he ordered, and to those of subsequent political purges under the rule of his nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party.
The iconic Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in the heart of Taipei will be closed on Feb. 28 to mark the 70th anniversary of the 2.28 massacre of civilians by KMT troops in 1947.
The memorial hall also ceased playing a hymn in the late Generalissimo's honor last week following a prolonged campaign by families of victims for "transitional justice," which involves more public truth-telling about Taiwan's authoritarian past.
Taiwan's culture minister Cheng Li-chiun said the closure will come "out of respect for 2.28 memorial activities and to prevent social confrontation."
Cheng's announcement came after Free Taiwan Party leader Tsai Ting-kuey called on people to rally at the hall on Feb. 28 to oppose authoritarian symbols and topple statues of Chiang.
She said the hall will now be closed on Feb. 28 every year to mark the deaths of an estimated 18,000 to 28,000 people in an armed crackdown that lasted into early May, according to a governemnt enquiry in 1992.
Statues at the hall have recently been targeted for political vandalism, while the government is currently considering a name-change, as well as calls to abolish the high-stepping guard of honor and other memorabilia of a repressive, authoritarian regime.
Meanwhile, dozens of activist groups saying they are planning a demonstration in downtown Taipei to mark the anniversary on Tuesday.
"This is not just an activity," parade leader Cheng Ch'ing-hwa told reporters on Monday. "This is an action."
"The most important thing is that we want the current government to accelerate transitional justice, so that Taiwan can become and healthy and normal country."
Meanwhile, former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou paid his respects at the 228 Park in Taipei on Monday, saying transitional justice was a good thing and calling for more historical research into the island's political history.
But he stopped short of endorsing calls for the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to change its name, to stop playing memorial songs to the late president, and to stop selling Chiang-related merchandise in its gift-shop.
"As head of the nation at the time of the 2.28 incident and the White Terror, of course Chiang Kai-shek bears responsibility," Ma told reporters. "But what kind of responsibility?"
"I think we will have to wait for more details to decide on that," he said. "I don't think we should rush to any hasty conclusions; that will just create unnecessary conflict," he said.
Call for probes
President Tsai Ying-wen, whose government has ordered further probes into the White Terror purges, will attend a prayer service of the Presbyterian Church on Tuesday morning, as well as an official commemorative ceremony in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, culture minister Cheng has called for a "rational dialogue" between diehard KMT supporters who are reluctant to dishonor their former leader and native Taiwanese who reject links with the history of mainland China, preferring that the island seek its own identity on the world stage.
Victims groups welcomed the hall's closure, with Taiwan 228 Care board member Lin Li-tsai saying that the group had already proposed something similar.
"Over the past 70 years, there have only been victims but no victimizers [on this issue]," Lin told reporters.
She cited a 2006 report by the government-funded Memorial Foundation of 228, which said Chiang Kai-shek bore the main responsibility for the killings.
The massacre was triggered after a fight broke out between government officials and an illegal cigarette vendor in Taipei on Feb. 27, 1947, sparking an uprising of native Taiwanese against the incoming KMT regime.
Further violence followed as the KMT imposed decades of martial law, including several waves of political purges of government opponents that saw 140,000 tried by military courts in an era known as the White Terror and thousands executed.
Taiwan had been ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to China as part of Tokyo's post-war reparation deal.
The incoming war-hardened KMT troops and hardships triggered by massive post-war inflation were a stark contrast to the five decades of relative peace and prosperity the island had enjoyed as part of Japan, and the local people rose up against their newly imposed rulers.
The KMT government relocated entirely to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland.
While the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island, Beijing regards it as part of Chinese territory and has threatened to invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has broad support among those who identify as Taiwanese, has pledged a new probe into the political purges under KMT rule.
But activists say the report will take too long and have called on the government to throw open restricted official archives to independent researchers and historians.
Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of the island's president Lee Teng-hui in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for de facto self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
Reported by Chung Kuang-cheng for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.