TAIPEI – For a place with a democratic system dented by assassination attempts targeting political figures, Taiwan today still carries out security measures strikingly laxly. As it’s more likely to run into identity checks, pat-down searches and security scanners at nightclubs than political events held on the island, officials and opposition leaders are vulnerable to attack.
On March 19, 9:00 am, Taiwan’s major opposition leader, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen held her first public policy speech after announcing that she would run for presidency in 2012. It was groups of staunch pro-Taiwan independence supporters that invited Tsai to the event which took place at Taipei’s National Taiwan University Hospital’s International Convention Center Room 301.
Of the about 200 attendants, no one had to show an ID card, no
bag was searched, and to all appearances, security personnel was conspicuous by its absence.
After her speech, Tsai left the venue accompanied by a two or three aides and, visibly anxious, walked down a public street to a car which had been parked hundreds of meters away.
Notions that the DPP chairwoman wasn’t properly protected only because she doesn’t belong to the government and that government officials are safer are somewhat untenable.
A few days later, the country’s third-highest official, Premier Wu Den-yih, held a press conference at the dimmed ballroom of a Taipei’s Palais de Chine Hotel. Although Wu was flanked by physically impressive bodyguards belonging to the National Security Bureau (NSB), also this event saw no inspections of bags and no meaningful checks on attendees’ identification.
Someone could have easily brought in a weapon, and the lack of brightness combined with a very short distance would presumably have made a strike an easy task.
According to the description given by a Taiwanese legislative assistant to Asia Times Online, neither is the legislative floor much safer. On condition of anonymity, he brings into account that “if someone intended to assassinate Taiwan’s political leadership, technically, it wouldn’t be a challenge”. In sessions where legislators summon members of the cabinet – and that includes officials in charge of military and national security – for questioning, a what would then amount to a quick decapitation strike could, according to him, be easily carried out.
“My responsibility is to prepare data for the questioning and Powerpoint presentations. I do this between two seat rows packed with high-ranking officials,” he explains. “To get there, I don’t have to pass any security checks; legislative assistants just have to swap a card for another at the entrance.”
On March 19, 2004, the day before Taiwan’s presidential election, a gun attack on then-president Chen Shui-bian and vice president Annette Lu, who were battling to be re-elected, was assessed as having had a significant impact on the poll’s results. The two, who both survived slightly injured, ran for the DPP, which won the race presumably through sympathy votes, and the incident led to an extraordinary bitter dispute with the then-opposition Kuomintang (KMT).
The shootings had a strong impact on the image of Taiwan’s democracy both domestically and abroad. This is because the incident – and indeed more so the resulting outrightly hostile atmosphere in Taiwanese domestic politics – could have easily been exploited as proof that a multi-party system like the one on the island is a recipe for political mess rather than a poster child for democracy.
Then, on the eve of municipal elections November 26, 2010, in what nearly amounted to a remake of the 2004 assassination attempts, the KMT’s Sean Lien was injured by a shot in the face at close range while campaigning. Like the 2004 shooting, also almost certainly affected the election outcome – and once again Taiwan’s democratic system was discredited.
Lien’s shooting happened at a time when the island’s big cities where the elections took place which were flooded with mainland Chinese tourists, who prior to the incident were likely positively impressed by hallmark colorful campaigning that in the eyes of the Taiwanese belongs to any free and fair election. Compared to the political trench warfare the 2004 shootings had ignited, however, November’s outrage and inter-party mudslinging was kept inside significantly more reasonable limits.
Evidence pointed to a single suspect in each of the shootings, and both suspects were found to having had a personal bone to pick with their victims rather than the desire to influence Taiwan’s political destiny. However, hardly anyone in Taiwan believes that investigations have been sufficiently thorough. In regards to the 2004 attack, polls showed just 19% of respondents accepted the investigators’ conclusion.
Whatever the shooters’ motivations, and whatever the repercussions, the question arises why Taiwan doesn’t do more to protect political figures. As local police, NSB and other units are present on political events, why don’t they bother doing what security personnel at airports, nightclubs and court houses do? Identification checks could be carried out, handheld security scanners that cost little more than US$60 employed, or people could simply politely be asked to open their back bags and purses.
According to Taiwanese scholars Asia Times Online interviewed, security measures are laxly carried out, if indeed at all, because in the eyes of the Taiwanese, there’s no need to be strict in this regard.
“Of course this has also to do with the circumstance that guns aren’t legal in Taiwan,” says Yang Yungnane, professor at the Department of Political Science of National Cheng Kung University. “That’s why people don’t have these kinds of [security-related] considerations.”
Professor Yang points at a cultural factor as to why the shooting of Lien four months ago apparently failed to install a sense of urgency in the minds of the Taiwanese. “This is part of Taiwanese culture; many acts and thoughts are rather little long-term oriented,” he says.
Tsai Chia-hung of the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University holds it that the higher a politician’s rank, the safer he or she is because fewer people would want to kill them.
“Gangsters aren’t too much interested in the central government; only local politicians get into trouble with organized crime relatively easily”, so Tsai. He agrees with the notion that shootings of Chen, Lu and Lien didn’t lead to stringent security measures because, as he says, “Taiwanese people are very forgetful.”
Tsai also sees a rationale behind the matter that politicians themselves refrain from demanding better protection. “Apart from the president there is no security need because politicians don’t want to disturb the public and don’t want to be seen as ostentatious.”
The NSB, which is Taiwan’s principal intelligence agency, is responsible for safeguarding the security of cabinet members and of candidates in the 2012 presidential elections as soon as they formally registered their candidacies with the Central Election Commission.
Local police, as well as the Investigation Bureau under the Ministry of Justice are also involved in security details. For the 2012 elections, the NSB intends to spend US$3 million on the procurement of armored BMWs with added protective shielding, for telecommunications equipment, security monitoring instruments, bulletproof vests, as well as for training personnel. High-profile politicians like DPP Chairwoman Tsai who don’t belong to the government and are not yet official contenders for the presidential elections have to make do with security personnel hired by their own party, and the local police.
According to Wang Jhy-perng, an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies, rather than a strengthening of security measures, the different scale of the fall out from the 2004 attack compared to the 2010 shooting augurs that Taiwan’s politicians in future will be able to feel more at ease than in the past.
Wang assesses that the different style with which politicians handled the two cases and the much calmer public reaction to last year’s shooting proves that Taiwan’s democratic system has matured to the extend that the likelihood of attacks targeting politicians is on the decrease.
“The trend goes towards rationality and truth,” Wang states. “That’s why such assassination attempts will have a smaller political impact. And because the political impact becomes less significant, fewer attacks will occur.”