Clearly, 2009 will prove to be a critical year for Taiwan. Either it will continue on course with the great Asian experiment in democracy, or it will become just another subservient satellite of China.
To find out which way the solar wind is blowing, we need to look no further than President Ma himself, someone critics have called "a windsock" and "a chameleon on a weather vane."
An early indicator will be how Ma intends to proceed against his old political foes.
Many observers have called on the president to stop what they call the witch hunt and make sure all the accused get fair and open trials. Such actions are necessary, they say, because the legal system itself is neither neutral nor democratic, but a law unto itself.
If Ma does step in, it will be a sign that he is prepared to do the right thing – the democratic and just thing – even if he has to be shamed into it.
Another indicator will be how the new Democratic government in Washington approaches its former satellite. If the U.S. goes ahead with its proposed weapons sales to Taiwan, it means Washington feels that Taiwan still has a future as a de facto independent democracy: a moon in Chinese space, but not necessarily a Chinese moon.
But if the U.S. decides to deep-freeze these weapons sales, it means that Washington believes that Taiwan has already moved too close to China and that Taiwan cannot be trusted as an ally.
In that case, if the Taiwanese want to be pulled out of China's orbit, they'll have to do it themselves.
To many Canadians, especially those who focus on trade with China, Taiwan's fall to earth (and return to more authoritarian rule) won't be anything more than a slight prick of conscience.
To others, though, the disappearance of even one democracy makes our own sky that much darker.
Also on tap is Max Hirsch's extremely interesting piece on aborigines in the Taiwan special forces...
Knife in hand, a Taiwanese commando scales a beachhead cliff and sneaks up on a bored-looking sentry. From a distance, the commando appears to plunge his blade into the sentry's chest, killing him instantly. He wastes no time dragging the sentry into the brush, hiding the body and then signaling to his teammates -- a dozen other commandos who rush out from tall grass, guns at the ready.After WWII the KMT rounded up a lot of aborigines who had served in the Japanese military and shipped them off to China. There's an oral history collection of the survivor's tales available in Chinese. Expand the post below to see more from Hirsch's piece....
If this were a real raid, not a harmless exercise, by southern Zuoying Base's Marine Reconnaissance Battalion, no doubt its troops -- some trained by the U.S. Navy SEALs -- would be a force to be reckoned with. Its deadliness, military officials say, lies in its curious demographic for a Taiwanese military unit -- more than half the battalion are Aborigines, a disadvantaged minority on this island of 23 million.
''Aborigines tend to be physically superior and mentally tough,'' says Marine Corps Deputy Spokesman Han Kou Hua, explaining why the indigenous Taiwanese comprise the majority of the 600-person Special Forces unit. "Their background as hunters," he adds, "is conducive to spec ops training."
More From Hirsch's piece...(wait until blog loads COMPLETELY!)In Taiwan military, aborigines are tip of spear
by Max Hirsch
TAIPEI, Jan. 2 KYODO
THE FEW. THE PROUD.
For millennia, Taiwanese Aborigines -- linked to Austronesian ethnic groups scattered across the Pacific -- were virtually the sole inhabitants of Taiwan. That began to change in the 17th century, when Han Chinese settlers immigrated to the island in force, eventually turning the natives into a minority. Today, Aborigines number some 450,000, comprising about 2 percent of the overall population.
In the island's 278,000-strong military, the percentage of Aborigines is nearly 3 percent, according to the Defense Ministry. But where Aborigines' numbers are staggeringly disproportionate is in the Army Special Forces. There, they comprise nearly 18 percent of the island's crack troops, says another senior military official familiar with the matter. ''Han Chinese don't typically have the physical endurance [for Special Forces] that Aborigines do,'' says the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Capt. Chen Wei-chih, a 24-year-old Aborigine from the ''Paiwan'' tribe on the island's east coast, became a career officer in the battalion after peers in his home village convinced him to join the military. ''I enlisted right out of high school,'' he says, adding, ''Our physical abilities are relatively good.''
Han says Chen's case is typical, as aboriginal youth from poor, rural homes flock to the Special Forces, where they can make up to US$570 more per month than the average infantryman. ''A lot of them,'' he says, ''come from difficult family circumstances -- joining the military represents an economic opportunity.''
Indeed, jobs in tribal communities are so scarce, up to two-thirds of their young adults move to cities, says Shih Cheng-feng, dean of the College of Indigenous Studies at Taiwan's National Dong Hwa University. But even there, Shih says, jobs are few and tend to be low-paying, as Han employers are typically loath to hire from a minority stereotyped as fickle and lazy.
Little wonder jobless rates for Aborigines are also disproportionately high. In 2007, their unemployment rate was 4.62 percent, compared with the overall 3.83-percent rate, according to the Cabinet-level Council on Indigenous Peoples. Worse still, cheaper labor imported from Southeast Asia is crowding out Aborigines from construction, fishing and other blue-collar sectors, Shih says, adding, ''Virtually all Aborigines have left are the police and military.''
THE JAPAN CONNECTION
During Japan's 1895-1945 colonial rule of Taiwan, many aboriginal men shifted from hunting to soldiering after Tokyo, in subduing the natives, grew to respect their fighting skills and recruited them into its military.
From 1942 to 1944, some 5,000 Aborigines fought in the Imperial Japanese Army against Allied forces, according to a recent government publication. ''They had twice the physical strength of Japanese troops, an outstanding sense of direction, and were highly skilled at nighttime combat because of their excellent night vision,'' states a report in last month's Taiwan Panorama, a Government Information Office (GIO) magazine.
Two of the eight aboriginal units, it adds, comprised elite marines, the forerunners of today's native commandos.
POLITICS OF INCLUSION
But even in the military, glass ceilings for Aborigines remain. Promotion to high ranks, for example, is rare, with only four natives ever having reached the rank of general, according to the GIO report. ''One of the main reasons that Aborigines are often passed over...is the fact that...they are not skilled at grooming interpersonal relationships with important people,'' it says.
Shih offers a different account, saying Aborigines are typically forced into early retirement because ''the government still distrusts them.'' The military, he adds, seeks to harness aboriginal combat skills ''without empowering the natives to the point where they could wage guerilla warfare'' against Taipei -- a concern given Aborigines' historic grievances against the Han majority.
''Distrust is a two-way street,'' says Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, a U.S. weekly newspaper covering military news. Asked by Minnick ''what aboriginal soldiers would do if [mainland] Chinese forces were to invade Taiwan,'' a native commando once joked, ''We'd shoot our own Han officers first and then kill the enemy.''
But for Col. Lee Wen-tsai, an Aborigine who leads the elite 26th Fighter Squadron, distrust and discrimination are myths. ''As long as you fulfill your duties, you can succeed here,'' Lee, 45, says on the tarmac of the Hualien Air Base, over which he roared earlier in the day in an F-16 fighter jet. ''One's ethnic background,'' he adds, ''no longer factors into decisions of who gets promoted.''