The 37 Incident Investigation Report and Transitional Justice in Taiwan

The 37 Incident Investigation Report and Transitional Justice in Taiwan

The 37 Incident Investigation
The 37 Incident Investigation Report and Transitional Justice in Taiwan

Alayna Bone is a summer fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.

On July 13, 2022, Taiwan’s Control Yuan (監察院) released an unprecedented investigation report on the “37 Incident” (37事件), formally recognizing the unjustified killings of unarmed refugees by Republic of China (ROC) soldiers on March 7, 1987. Since the end of martial law 35 years ago, Taiwan has made important strides on many fronts to redress the wrongs committed during its authoritarian era, with reparations projects and political reform rapidly expanding over the last six years. The investigation of this relatively unknown incident is emblematic of Taiwan’s continuing transitional justice movement, as well as its efforts to develop itself as an advocate for human rights and democratic values on the international stage.

The 37 Incident

Less than 50 years ago, violence plaguing mainland Southeast Asia precipitated one of the largest refugee crises in world history. Between 1975 and 1995, over 2.5 million Vietnamese citizens fled hostility and discrimination during the country’s civil war, early communist rule, and Sino-Vietnamese border conflicts. During the peak of the crisis, Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese population faced extensive persecution, leading many to seek refuge overseas in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.

Through the first half of the crisis, Taiwan was an active participant in providing refugee relief. Nonprofits and government organizations alike donated food and supplies, and reception centers were set up on the Penghu Islands (澎湖縣). During the mid-1980s, likely due to a combination of a strain on national resources, political pressure, and paranoia regarding Communist subversion, this pro-refugee sentiment reversed. Despite the lack of evidence, Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) politicians began to argue that the continuing inflows of refugees were part of a “refugee war” conducted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to destabilize Taiwan. In August of 1985, the Kinmen Defense Command (金門防衛司令部) formally adopted the hardline policy of “no acceptance, all repatriation” (“不予接納, 全部遣返”). This new protocol, however, was extremely vague, and did not provide clear guidelines for how to handle cases of those who either would not remove themselves from the area or had already made it to ROC shores. Within this gray area, and further clouded by Kinmen’s distance from central oversight, local officials developed an unmitigated hostility toward even the most vulnerable persons that approached the islands.

Image: Kinmen’s locations relative to the PRC and Taiwan. (Image source: Island Studies Journal

On the morning of March 7, 1987, a boat carrying around 20 ethnically Chinese Vietnamese refugees, who had already been rejected in Hong Kong, approached Lieyu Island (烈嶼鄉) requesting political asylum. [1] After several rounds of warning shots from members of the Kinmen Garrison (金門駐軍), the boat reached a beach on the southwest coast of the island and quickly fell under fire. During a pause in the attack caused by a faulty grenade, three men jumped out, begging the ROC soldiers to stop shooting, and were immediately killed. Soldiers then boarded the boat and removed the other passengers, ordering them to kneel on the beach before killing them execution-style. The victims included elderly persons, a pregnant woman, young children, and an infant. 

Initial investigations of the incident, performed by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部) and Army General Headquarters under pressure from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) lawmakers during the same year, profiled the victims as “18 bandits” and charged four military commanders with short sentences for killing unarmed civilians. Nonetheless, these sentences were suspended when the military court argued that the defendants “took action out of duty and responsibility” and acted with “mercy.” The victims of the incident remain unidentified, with their bodies buried in an unmarked grave on Lieyu Island.

Since the initial investigation, the 37 Incident has received minimal attention, almost exclusively from independent bloggers and smaller media groups (see examples here and here). After 1987, it was rarely acknowledged by the Taiwanese government, let alone by KMT officials. One of the most public mentions of the incident occurred during a 2018 Foreign and National Defense Committee (立法院外交及國防委員會) hearing, when legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐) requested an examination of the 37 Incident’s archived files in order to offer formal apologies to the victims’ families. The Minister of National Defense, at the time, disagreed with such actions, stating that the troops who carried out the incident were following standard operating procedures of the martial law period. The MND later followed up on the question by stating that because of the time that has passed since the incident, it would be too difficult to try to investigate the victims’ names and backgrounds.

Image: Control Yuan Member Kao Yung-cheng, a member of the 37 Incident investigation committee, presents its findings at a press conference on July 13. (Image source: Liberty Times)

Given this institutional resistance, the Control Yuan’s investigation report and its public presentation in July by Control Yuan Member Kao Yung-cheng (高涌誠) caught many off guard. The report concluded that the 37 Incident was the culmination of years of unchecked hostility toward refugees by the Kinmen Garrison. As early as 1972, similar acts of violence were performed by ROC soldiers in Kinmen against civilians and refugees traveling in the surrounding waters, and commanders were repeatedly penalized if such cases were not handled aggressively. The report also found that the initial 1987 investigation omitted evidence, neglected identifying the victims, and failed to alert the necessary authorities in Vietnam of their deaths. In addition, the actions taken against the victims were determined to not be in line with the official laws and policies of the time, contradicting the 2018 MND statement. The Control Yuan’s report concluded by advising the MND to include more on refugee rights in the military’s training curriculum. It also requested that the MND conduct its own probe into the original investigation and the relevant incidents that preceded it. 

Transitional Justice in Taiwan

When presenting the report, Kao stated that his motives for conducting the investigation were to increase government trust and address online speculation around the facts surrounding the incident. Correspondingly, the investigation into the 37 Incident seems to be another stride forward in Taiwan’s transitional justice movement. [2] Although many efforts have been made over the last few decades to correct the wrongs committed during Taiwan’s one-party era, the DPP has led the crusade with renewed vigor since President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) 2016 election. During that same year, the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice (促進轉型正義 條例) was passed with the intent to expand public access to political archives, restore historical truths, remove authoritarian symbols, settle issues of ill-gotten party assets, and redress judicial wrongs that occurred between 1945 and 1992. In 2018, the “Ill-Gotten Gains Act” (政黨及其附隨組織不當取得財產處理條例) was passed to begin the restoration of assets seized by the KMT during the martial law era. 

Also in 2018, the Transitional Justice Commission (TJC, 促進轉型正義委員會) was established to oversee the removal of authoritarian symbols, declassification of critical documents, and the creation of a political trials database. By October 2020, the TJC had removed around 70 percent of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) statues in Taiwan and exonerated 5,874 people wrongfully convicted during the “White Terror” (白色恐怖) period. Earlier this year, the TJC met the demands of many to double reparation amounts for the families of those killed during the era. While the investigation of the 37 Incident was not led by the TJC, the event’s reconsideration fits squarely into the movement’s growing push to restore truths and redress the oppression of Taiwan’s former authoritarian system.

Transitional Justice as a Component of Taiwan’s Soft Power

Transitional justice is a tool regularly used by states to address repressive actions imposed by former regimes. When rooted in the rule of law and protection of human rights, transitional justice movements contribute to the development of a representative democracy, as they help to empower victim groups and promote more transparent governance. In turn, these movements can work as a soft power tool to signal democratic progression to the international community. This process was clearly demonstrated during Taiwan’s first wave of transitional justice in the early 1990s. As the country projected to the world policies that promoted healing from the 228 Incident (二二八事件), Western states, anxiously observing Taiwan’s recovery from martial law, watched as it “galloped toward democracy.” Since 2016 especially, the same countries have cited Taiwan’s robust political system and respect for human rights as justification for strengthening relations. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated in her recent op-ed that the US-Taiwan relationship is “rooted in shared interests and values: self-determination and self-government, democracy and freedom, human dignity and human rights.” Similarly, a European Union web page detailing EU-Taiwan relations states in its first paragraph that “Taiwan is a reliable and valued like-minded partner in Asia. The EU and Taiwan share common values, such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.”

Nevertheless, the administration of transitional justice is hardly straightforward, and the legacy of the 37 Incident itself will be difficult to settle. If the MND does move forward with its own investigation, the burden of identifying its victims and the victims of similar events that preceded it will be heavy, and could prove to be only partially successful. Despite these obstacles, this reinvestigation almost 35 years later is an important move that demonstrates that Taiwan’s transitional justice movement is concerned with even less-visible incidents of martial law injustice. By taking up cases that are largely unknown by the public, Taiwan can signal its commitment at home and abroad to transparency and indiscriminate justice, even when it is costly to do so. Continuing to strengthen Taiwan’s human rights standards and democratic representation through transitional justice will not only serve as a balm for its own domestic issues, but will also continue to strengthen its positioning in the international system.

The main point: July’s release of the Control Yuan’s 37 Incident investigation report shed light on the violent and systematic mistreatment of Indo-Chinese refugees by the Kinmen Garrison during Taiwan’s martial law era. It also confirmed Taiwan’s commitment to its transitional justice movement, an important component of Taiwan’s soft power.

[1] No official number of victims is confirmed, and sources will identify the total count as at least 19 or around 20. This is likely due to two reasons: many of those killed in the incident were small children, and evidence that could lend clarity to the details of the incident were heavily suppressed during the initial 1987 investigation.

[2] Transitional justice is defined by the United Nations as an approach to systematic or massive violations of human rights that both provides redress to victims and creates or enhances opportunities for the transformation of the political systems, conflicts, and other conditions that may have been at the root of the abuses.