Written by J Michael Cole.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice confirmed on Monday that former president Chen Shui-bian, who is serving a 20-year jail sentence for corruption, attempted suicide by hanging on the evening of June 2, the latest in a long list of dramatic events involving the controversial former leader.
According to reports, the 62-year-old, who served as president from 2000-2008, tried to hang himself with a towel in a bathroom at Taichung Prison’s Pei Teh Hospital, but was stopped by a guard, who immediately sent him over to medical staff for examinations.
Chen, who is reportedly suffering from a number of ailments, including severe depression, sleep apnea, non-typical Parkinson’s disease, a speech disorder and mild cerebral atrophy, was transferred from Taipei Veterans General Hospital on April 19. His family and followers from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and other pro-independence groups have accused the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou of denying medical parole for the former president, ostensibly for political reasons. The Ma government argues that the former president is receiving proper care at the prison hospital and that he does not qualify for parole.
Chen’s office, which in a press release on Monday confirmed the former president’s attempt to take his life, said Chen had grown desperate after learning that he would not qualify for an amnesty under revisions to the Accounting Act, which will exonerate hundreds of government employees and academics over misuse of public funds.
In comments on Monday, Deputy Minister of Justice Chen Ming-tang said that Chen was also unhappy with a snag in his attempt to return to the DPP, which he and his wife, Wu Shu-jen, had left in August 2008. Chen announced his intention of rejoining the party in May, a move that has proven divisive within a party that has sought to distance itself from the scandals involving Chen, Wu, and other family members. A decision on his attempt to rejoin the party is expected next week. While the old guard in the DPP has supported his return, others, including former presidential candidate and chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, have argued that Chen has a lot of explaining to do before a decision can be made. Such remarks have drawn fire from more conservative elements within the party and highlighted the ideological — and in some ways generational — chasm that continues to beset the party.
While Chen’s supporters claim that the former president’s jailing is the result of political oppression, others, including individuals who were very close to the former first family, have provided what can only be regarded as confirmation that the family did transfer millions of dollars in political donations into various accounts overseas. Chen’s son, Chen Chih-chung, has been on the record confirming that some of the money had been used to purchase houses in the U.S. Such revelations had serious reverberations within the DPP and among the public that had hoped for a clear break with the past when Chen’s DPP won in 2000, ending more than half a century of KMT rule, most of it authoritarian.
The sense of betrayal, along with fears that proximity to the former president will undermine DPP candidates’ ability to be elected, has led some members — including Tsai — to distance themselves from the former president. Some have also privately expressed doubts about Chen’s attempted suicide, saying that the incident was little more that theatrics and opportunism. Others believe that he has lost touch with reality, perhaps as the result of an onset of mental illness.
There is no doubt that the former president’s health has deteriorated since his incarceration, and that Chen deserves the best medical attention possible. Whether his condition is the result of poor treatment, lack of exercise, or negligence by the authorities, or simply the outcome of his fall from grace, remains to be determined. But there also is little doubt that his situation is being used by some members of the DPP — himself included — to undermine the image of the Ma administration, which bears the unenviable mark of the party’s authoritarian past. Undeniably, questionable moves by the KMT administration on corruption, including the revisions to the Accounting Act, which could lead to the exoneration of former KMT lawmaker Yen Chin-piao, who used public funds to visit hostess bars and KTV lounges, have not helped the Ma government and have given some legitimacy to accusations that it is not impartial.
Sensing that history (and his former party) risks leaving him behind, Chen, a former lawyer, political prisoner and Taipei mayor, whose contributions to the country are not negligible, appears to once again be seeking his place under the sun. He is doing so regardless of the damage that his resurgence could cause the DPP, which after its defeat in the 2008 presidential election and the Chen scandals, many believed was as good as dead.
Sunday night’s incident notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Chen truly seeks martyrdom. What he wants is out, and as long as there is hope that he will eventually be granted medical parole, his actions are unlikely to go beyond the illusion of martyrdom, while his supporters will continue to exploit the situation to score jabs at Ma. In politics, illusion is often more powerful than reality.
J. Michael Cole is Deputy News Editor at the Taipei Times in Taiwan, a contributor for Jane’s Defence Weekly and columnist for The Diplomat. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone. Follow him on Twitter @JMichaelCole1.