Our jaunt around Taipei on 2/28 brought us through 228 Park, where (as we figured would happen) we came across the official 2/28 memorial ceremony. The park, by the way, has nearly dead grass but some lovely elements, including old-style pagodas and a few genuinely historical monument gates.
After some dreadfully boring speeches by Hau Lung-bin, Wu Den-yih and others, which basically reiterated noncontroversial talking points along the lines of "Democracy is important" (there was more, delivered in Taiwanese, that I couldn't understand), President Ma took the podium to speak.
He delivered the part of the speech we heard in Taiwanese, which was a surprise seeing as I was/am fairly sure he can't speak Taiwanese. He sounded practiced and stiff, not at all like he was speaking a native language. (I almost put the video I took up with a "Rate Ma's Taiwanese" poll but decided that it was somewhat beside the point). The entire affair was dark-suited and well-guarded, with overheated and bored-looking security guards patrolling the park. Regardless of what he said, he wasn't going to be admitting anything we don't already know, and certainly wasn't going to admit KMT responsibility in the incident
We also walked by the DPP opposition protest site before it got started, where enthusiastic people in t-shirts, not sweating in navy suits and red ties, handed out flags amid minimal security.
It was a clear physical manifestation of a divided public - a public that perhaps doesn't wish for such a fissure, and yet can't seem to resolve the roiling public debate on the facts of Taiwanese history and what it means to be Taiwanese (or to identify as "Chinese", or to say one is "Chinese" when one identifies as "Taiwanese" because that's what was taught in school).
As an American, I do understand this - clearly not in all of its complexity and emotion, but on a visceral level, I get it. I come from a divided country too - in different ways under extraordinarily different (and less tragic) circumstances, but divided nonetheless.
I hear a lot of comparisons between American and Taiwanese political parties, and one can draw some similarities between, say, the KMT and Republicans and the DPP and Democrats, but it's an imperfect analogy and that's not really what I mean.
I know what it's like to be from a country where one political party goes on some tragic, senseless crusade "for the good of the country and people" and then tries to wash its hands of responsibility for the fallout - "it was a government, not specifically Republican, initiative" - of course, you can say, the war in Iraq is overseas, and was not aimed at America's own citizens as KMT persecution was in Taiwan...and that's absolutely true: my point is that of a divided public and a government willing to do anything possible, including torture and war, and to then cite necessity for the greater good, to meet its own objectives. My point is that just as Bush's war did not bring about one citizenry united under a common cause, so it is in Taiwan: instead of one memorial service representing a united and remembering public, there had to be a stiff-collared speech-fest on one side and a protest parade on the other.
I know what it's like to come from a country where there are two clearly delineated sides to all public discourse, from which it is nearly impossible to break free from either. The Taiwanese debate on national identity is in many ways more urgent, more fraught with real-world danger and has clearer historical roots than America's culture war, though. It deals with not just social values but who they are as a nationality and, implicitly, an ethnicity.
Basically, what I'm trying to say - and hopefully not failing too miserably - is that I can't possibly ever get, on a gut level, what 2/28 means to the Taiwanese or to any given Taiwanese person. What I saw yesterday on 2/28, however, makes it clear that Taiwan is still a nation and identity divided...and vitriolic public discourse and a polarized public? That is something I do get.
A final thought. It still saddens and scares me in Taiwan to come across apologists for 2/28: I have heard more than once the defense that it was "necessary" to control the "rioters", and I have to wonder if people who say this are just spouting back nonsense they were taught in school by teachers who had no choice but to teach it back in the day. Regardless of the various valid viewpoints one might have on the future of Taiwan, I'd like to see this sad little piece of muck buried forever.