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Taiwan ponders price of democracy

As polling begins under the glare of mainland China, activists recall the sacrifices they made, writes Teresa Poole in Taipei
If things had been different, Liang-chun and Ting-chun would have been old enough to vote in Taiwan's first democratic presidential election today.

Instead, their parents, political activists, will this morning reflect on the price their family has paid in the Taiwanese people's struggle for reform. On 28 February 1980 a man entered their guarded home in Taipei and stabbed to death the six-year-old twin girls and their grandmother. When their elder sister returned from school she too was attacked and only just survived.

The slaughter was probably the worst atrocity of Taiwan's recent political history. Neither the date of the murders nor the victims was a matter of chance. The day marked the anniversary of the 1947 incident which led to the killing of up to 20,000 Taiwanese by ruling Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists determined to crush calls for reform.

The two girls were daughters of Lin Yi-hsiung, a lawyer and a member of the Formosa group of pro-democracy activists, who had appeared in court that morning on sedition charges. The murdered old lady was Mr Lin's mother. No one has been punished and, despite the improved political environment, no official inquiry has been held into the deaths.

Mr Lin's wife, Fang Su-min, still asks: "After my husband's arrest, my house was under 24-hour surveillance. The guards knew if anybody came to my home. How could a murderer have entered my home, and killed three people?" It is presumed a pro-KMT faction probably carried out the killings as a warning to the opposition.

As Peng Ming-min, the candidate from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) reminded everyone this week, Taiwan's evolution to democracy has not been as bloodless as is sometimes portrayed. For decades the KMT ruthlessly wiped out opposition. "We worked so hard to get this election," said Antonio Chiang, an editor of political magazines. After the murders, Mr Lin spent four-and-a-half years in jail, and a decade in exile. In the 16 years following that terrible afternoon, Taiwan's political climate has changed greatly. Martial law ended in 1987 and opposition parties legalised in 1989. Last night, in a display of democracy, all four candidates held rallies and marches throughout Taiwan.

These days, Ms Fang runs a private institute, the Forest of Mercy foundation, to document the pro-democracy movement and Taiwanese culture; Mr Lin concentrates on opposing Taiwan's planned fourth nuclear power station.

The institute is in Ilan county, two hours' drive from Taipei, one of the most solid areas of DPP support. People in Ilan insist reform still has some way to go. "Lee is the worst president, because he allows corruption and the government relationship with the mafia," said You Hsiang-neng, who was working in the DPP Ilan headquarters. Do Ilan people still hate the KMT? "Yes," said Ms Fang. Twelve years ago Ilan was one of the first counties to elect an opposition mayor.

But it is Peking, not the Taiwanese, which has defined the agenda for today's polls. China's military threats mean Taiwan's international status is the crucial issue. Most Taiwanese will tell you the same thing: in practice Taiwan is an independent state, has been under separate government for more than a century, and reunification with the Communist People's Republic is unthinkable. Where they disagree is in how to preserve such a fragile status quo and how aggressively to deal with an increasingly belligerent mainland.

Dr Peng of the DPP said the One China fiction should be abandoned in favour of accepting Taiwan's de facto independence; but he would not declare independence unless China invaded. The incumbent KMT President, Mr Lee Teng-hui, denies Peking's allegation that he secretly favours independence but he says China is a cultural entity, and reunification could only occur after the mainland achieves democracy.

That leaves the man most conciliatory towards Peking, Lin Yang-gang, a former KMT stalwart. Even he is hardly a traditional One China enthusiast; unification should not have a timetable, he said last week, and might only take the form of a "Chinese commonwealth" loosely modelled on the European Union.

"Democracy will defeat guns," Mr Lee said yesterday. Mr Lee, the presumed winner, has set himself a goal of at least 50 per cent of the vote, which Western diplomats fervently hope he achieves. If he does not, Peking could assume its crude scare tactics have paid off, say some analysts.

In Ilan, Ms Fang's family are firm DPP supporters. Given the family tragedy, does she ever wish her husband had not been involved in politics? "Of course, sometimes I still think like that," she said. "But when I see him handing out leaflets in the street, helping people so happily, I cannot say anything. I ask, `Why are politics in Taiwan so dirty?' I think maybe because we lack trust between people."