Informants were simply the tail end of a vast surveillance network, and untangling it is a new challenge to the Transitional Justice Commission
By Chen Yu-fu and Kayleigh Madjar / Staff reporter, with staff writer
Holding Martial Law-era informants accountable is the next challenge for transitional justice, and requires careful investigation and reflection to avoid a “witch hunt” on one extreme and “whitewashing” on the other, the Transitional Justice Commission said yesterday.
The topic has resurfaced following a report by the Liberty Times (sister newspaper of the Taipei Times) on Saturday revealing that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Huang Kuo-shu (黃國書) had served as an informant for the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government while he was a student in the 1980s.
Huang yesterday admitted to being an informant and said he would resign from the DPP when his term ends, vowing not to seek re-election.
The commission said Huang’s case was the inevitable result of a highly systematized surveillance system perfected over decades of martial law.
An informant is merely the tail end of this extensive surveillance apparatus, it said, adding that identifying individuals and holding them accountable would require a sounder legal basis.
Unearthing and using surveillance files are the newest challenge to transitional justice, the commission said.
Apart from striking the right balance between privacy and seeking the truth, comparing subjective comments from informants with files and witness testimony is a lengthy and complicated process, it added.
Through this process, “we can deepen our understanding of and reflect on this system,” the commission said, adding that a discussion can thereafter begin on responsibility.
“This is a serious democratic undertaking,” it said. “If we are not careful, it could become a witch hunt or whitewash the situation.”
Surveillance by the KMT government was still widespread during the final years of martial law, the commission said in a report in April last year.
More than 30,000 informants were groomed by intelligence agencies during the 1980s, casting an extensive net of surveillance throughout society, National Taiwan University researchers found.
A Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau handbook from 1981 stated that the goal of the informant program was to “obtain comprehensive information on security and criminal activity in society,” they found.
Depending on the population and conditions in each region, one informant was groomed for every 500, 600 or 700 people, for a total of about 30,000 nationwide, the report said.
About 40 percent were in local administrative offices, while the remaining 60 percent were “evenly distributed throughout societal organizations at all levels,” it said.
All instruction was given top-down and contact was made at least once per month for average informants, who were not regularly compensated, the researchers found.
Internal or undercover informants were paid NT$1,000 to NT$20,000 per month and were in constant contact with their handlers, they added.
Universities were a focus for surveillance, with about 1,000 informants stationed on campuses across Taiwan, the report said, adding that student groups, religious organizations, opposition magazines and overseas academics were also of primary interest.
Officers targeted people who had expressed anti-government views, but not to an extent requiring suppression, to control them and minimize threats, the report said.
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