Is Isolated Taiwan Propping Up Dictators?

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Is Isolated Taiwan Propping Up Dictators?

If Taiwan is trying to burnish its reputation as a democracy, why is it cozying up to some of the world’s worst dictators? asks Cain Nunns.

TAIPEI, Taiwan—It was all smiles and “brotherly love” as Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh received full state honors and a 21-gun salute from Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou in Taipei late last month.

Jammeh, making his ninth trip to this diplomatically isolated island republic 100 miles off China’s southern coast, has called Taiwan “one of the best friends Gambia has ever had.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a press release calling the impoverished West African nation “an important ally” before writing that “the close partnership and brotherly bonds between the two countries remain strong.”

Jammeh, who has presided over a brutal dictatorship since engineering a coup in 1994, has previously called for all gays to be expelled from his country. If they stay, he says, he’ll have their heads “cut off.”

That was just one in a long list of “colorful” behavior from a man who claims to have invented an herbal cure for AIDS that requires sufferers to stop taking drugs prescribed to fight the virus. When the UN representative to Gambia complained that it was a reckless gesture for a country wracked with one of the world’s highest adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rates, he had her expelled.

According to a March 2009 Amnesty International report, up to 1,000 Gambians were abducted by government-sponsored “witch doctors” on charges of witchcraft. Once abducted, they were taken to detention centers and forced to drink poisonous concoctions. Apparently, the former Army lieutenant attributed his aunt’s death to people dabbling in the dark arts.

Jammeh also forbids anybody else from driving through the massive arch commemorating his coup in the crumbling capital of Banjul.

But that’s routine compared to human rights groups’ claims of documented disappearances, extrajudicial killings and the torture and imprisonment of his real or perceived enemies at the hands of his feared security apparatus and shadowy militias with laconic names like Ninjas, Drug Boys and Jugglers.

A Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative report linked Jammeh to a 2005 massacre of 50 African nationals, including 44 Ghanaians. The group was reportedly picked up by Gambian naval boats in international waters, transported to Gambia and hacked up by “security forces with machetes, axes and other weapons.”

But that doesn’t seem to bother Ma.

The China News Agency reported that Taiwan will give Gambia three more patrol boats to “help strengthen its naval defenses.” Apparently one of the four 50-ton boats earlier donated by Taipei had “suffered serious damage.”

So why would a country that often trumpets its own remarkable democratic achievements be so quick to embrace a brutal regime and pariah of the international community?

The answer is in the numbers – 23 of them to be exact. That’s how many diplomatic allies the Republic of China  – Taiwan’s official moniker since Chiang Kai-sheik’s battered troops started arriving on the island in 1945 – has left.

“We need a friend, OK? Everybody does. All presidents, except ours, are traveling worldwide. It’s important to receive friends to get to know us better. We only have 23 allies. But we would like to have more,” says Joanne Chang, a research fellow at the Institute of American and European Studies and former diplomat. “We don’t have the option of friends who can speak out for us. By coming to Taiwan to see our freedom and democracy, and the freedom of the press, we hope it will impress other countries to improve their own political systems.”

That may well be true, but critics claim Taiwanese foreign policy has long been bipolar. Taipei, they say, has turned a blind eye to its despotic allies for decades, a practice that began long before it started to get hammered in its diplomatic race with Beijing following the island’s expulsion from the UN in 1971.

A cursory look at the leaders that Taiwan has armed, funded and provided military training to is a Who’s Who of 20th century dictators.

Taipei was a strong supporter of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party in Apartheid-era South Africa. In Central America, Taiwan was a chief backer of François Duvalier, or “Papa Doc” who was known for personally watching and participating in torture sessions, and on one occasion communing with the head of a rebel leader he had executed.

Ditto for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Honduras, Paraguay, Dominican Republic and Panama, all home to brutal dictatorships, death squads and bloody civil wars during the late days of the Cold War. It bears mention that the United States, too, supported many of these same regimes.

Perhaps most disturbing was that many of the perpetrators of these abuses had passed through the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in suburban Taipei. The college, reportedly established with U.S. help in the early 1950s, is a Made-in-Taiwan version of the School of the Americas.  El Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson, or “Blowtorch Bob,” was one of the college’s most notable graduates. The Academy is today part of the National Defense University.

More recently, in April of this year, Ma embarked on a three-country African tour, which included a stop in Swaziland to visit Africa’s last absolute monarch King Mswali III, who is gearing up to make his 13th visit to Taiwan.

Mswali, who according to the World CIA Fact Book, presides over the world’s highest adult HIV/AIDS rate at 25.9 percent, thinks branding is a viable cure for the disease.

Despite overseeing one of the world’s poorest countries, Forbes estimated him to be the world’s 15th wealthiest monarch in 2011, with a personal fortune of $100 million. Added to that is some $30 million per year set aside for the royal family and a multibillion dollar state investment fund that he controls.

Ma and the King had a sit-up competition, and Mswali presented the two-term president with a severed leopard’s head.

In Burkina Faso, Ma was awarded the country’s highest honor, The Grand Cross of the National Order, by President Blaise Campaore.

Campaore seized power in 1987 when his former friend and boss Thomas Sankara was gunned down in his own office. Ma lauded the Muammar Qaddafi’s World Revolutionary Center graduate for the country’s sustainable development achievements. Unemployment runs at about 77 percent in Burkina Faso.

While Taiwan has been criticized for checkbook diplomacy, critics say that the island should also be more circumspect when choosing international partners to stump for it in the international arena and downplay the pomp and ceremony of official ties.

It is not uncommon for nations to have diplomatic relations with despotic regimes—China was cited during the 2008 Olympics not just for its human rights violations in Tibet but also for its business dealings in Darfur, where some alleged a genocide was under way. Yet Taiwan’s brazen use of them in the international arena suggests a chaotic lack of diplomatic vision at best. In 2007, for instance, Taipei prodded Gambia, Swaziland, Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe and Malawi (which has since jumped ship to Beijing) to issue a joint communique for the island’s inclusion in the United Nations based on its democratic credentials.
“If you’re talking about whether they deserve a (21) gun salute, then of course they don’t. However, Taiwan needs to maintain a certain number of diplomatic allies, in order to not be totally isolated from the international arena,” says I-Chung Lai, a former director of the Department of International Affairs with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. “No western democracy is willing to extend even a little recognition about Taiwan’s democratic status, other than those dictatorships. So what option does Taiwan have?”
But if Taiwan’s strategy is to burnish its democratic credentials, one has to wonder if the solitary republic would be better off alone. According to the Guardian, Jammeh once told his constituents in a live television address, “I will kill anyone who wants to destabilize this country. If you think that you can collaborate with so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world. I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it.”
Cain Nunns is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian, Monocle and Global Post, among other publications.