"We're Not Put in Prison"
By Dongwook Shin Yoon firstname.lastname@example.org
March 29, 2001
A Visit to Taiwan, Introducing Conscientious Objection and the Alternative Service System in Action First in Asia
"The alternative service can never be allowed." Affirmed the Taiwanese Minister of Defense in 1997. However, in only three years in January 2000, the Taiwanese Legislature (the National Assembly) passed the alternative service act. The martial law withdrawn in 1987, Taiwan had been a country of barracks with as many as six hundred thousand soldiers out of twenty-three million population, a little short of that of South Korea. Besides Taiwan had been afflicted with martial shadows like a five times as high suicide rate in the camp as that in the society and frequent mysterious deaths.
"Nobody ever imagined that the law would be passed so quickly." said Mr. Jianxijie lawmaker, who had strived to have the alternative service law passed from 1996, "Even I was surprised at so quick introduction of the alternative service." With the law enacted from July 2000, Taiwanese young men can choose between military service and the public service. Thirty-one conscientious objectors behind bars were also set free with an opportunity to serve the society.
Seventeen Years of Imprisonment for Jizhengzhong and His Two Brothers in Total
Starting from Taipei at one o'clock on September 3, we drove three hours or so on the highway to get to Taizhong. Passing through monotonous gray downtown buildings, and low hills coming into sight in the distance, a red sign that reads "Taizhong Municipal Renaizhijia" was noticed, an asylum for the aged, where some conscientious objectors were performing alternative service duties. As we set foot inside, a robust young man in a sweaty T-shirt ran toward our car. He was Mr. Gaozhicheng (24) who was working on the parterre by the main gate. Several young men were leveling the soil on the flowerbed with shovels. They were the conscientious objectors, working as gardeners in the asylum.
Mr. Gao was confined in prison until last year. According to his religious conscience as a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, he had refused military service. After two years of imprisonment since his enlistment in 1998, he could be set free with the alternative service being enacted. Before the enforcement of this law, Taiwanese objectors had to put up with harsh punishment. Being sentenced to more than seven years, they were barely exempted from military service after more than four years' imprisonment. To make the situation even worse, the prison term was not accumulated. If the consecutive confinement is even a day short of four years, the objector was taken to prison over and over until the age of forty-five. Quite a lot of people were deliberately ordered to leave prison with the expiration of four years term near at hand. Under such circumstances, there is even a man who spent as long as fifteen years in prison. Mr. Gao's father, a Jehovah's Witness, spent all of his twenties in prison. Mr. Gao's family is not the only victim of faith immediately leading to imprisonment.
Three brothers of Mr. Jizhengzhong (42), missionaries in Taipei, served respectively their terms for conscientious objection. The prison terms for these brothers add up to as long as seventeen years. Called up and sentenced to eleven years for mutiny in 1976, the elder brother was behind bars for seven years. In 1980, while his brother was in prison, Mr. Jizhengzhong was put behind bars for six years. After all, the two brothers served their prison terms simultaneously for three years from 1980 until 1983. Their mother had to shed tears, coming and going to both ends of the Taiwanese island to see her elder son in Taipei and her second son in Tainan. In 1986, Mr. Ji was no sooner set free than his younger brother was put in jail. It was not until his younger brother was released after four years' imprisonment in 1991, the prison became distant from his family. "I was beaten and bruised many times," said Mr. Ji, recollecting that his family suffered all the more because his father was a career soldier. Shortly after his elder brother was imprisoned, his father walked out of the army.
Arms Reduction, the Golden Opportunity
Though the maximum sentence for mutiny was reduced from seven years to five years in 1992, conscientious objectors had to endure even more suffering. Circumstances in terms of the military service issue got even worse. Only the prison term was reduced with the same law still stipulating that a conscientious objector was entitled to be exempt from military service upon completion of more than four years' imprisonment under a sentence of more than seven years in 1989. Mr. Kezhangwen (32), while serving in prison under a sentence of seven years, was released on a general amnesty on January 1, 1991, the National Foundation Day. He was not happy at all to be released. He had to be put in jail again as he didn't complete four years. Even worse, in 1992 while waiting for his trial, the maximum sentence for mutiny was reduced to five years. Standing at trial again in 1992, he begged his judge advocate to sentence him to seven years' imprisonment even under more false charges. The judge advocate accepted his request and sentenced him seven years. He had to complete four years' prison term before he was set free in May 1996. Mr. Ke said "since 1992, conscientious objectors had to go in and out of prison more frequently."
Despite such harsh treatment, the existence of conscientious objectors in Taiwan had been consistently concealed for half a century. It may be partly because there were comparatively less conscientious objectors in Taiwan, with no more than four thousand Jehovah's Witnesses compared to eighty thousand in Korea. Above all things, however, what was more to be blamed was the national security cause that domineered all over the society under the military threat from Mainland China. The issue of conscientious objection rose to the surface with the reduction of the military forces down for discussion in late 1990s. According to the arms reduction plan initiated in 1997, from the year 2000, the conscript reduced from 140~150 thousands to one hundred thirty thousands.
With an overflowing number of conscripts, the candidates had to wait for six months to a year before they were enlisted. This situation gave a golden opportunity to those who had prepared for the enactment of the alternative service act. The Civil Organizations Confederation for the Community Service was formed out of organizations for the disabled, women, senior citizens, etc. that would benefit from the enforcement of the alternative service. Fifty-six lawmakers including Mr. Chen, organized The Suprapartisan Community Service Act Enforcement Team. Young men demonstrated before the Department of Defense building. Mr. Chen, Tairi, the first civilian director of the Conscription Bureau under the Department of Internal Affairs, began to draw up some plans to utilize the excessive number of candidates. Coming back from an observation trip to the alternative service in action in Europe, officials set up The Executive Council Committee for Enactment of the Alternative Service. The alternative service system in Europe was originally legislated for conscientious objectors. Examining the introduction of the alternative service, the existence of the conscientious objectors in Taiwan naturally rose to the surface. The legal circles timely raised the issue of conscientious objection, too. Mr. Linianzu, a lawyer, took the initiative to collect the cases of the inflictions endured by the conscientious objectors and raised a suit against the constitution. Explaining the reason of his lawsuit, he said "it showed extreme contradiction that revision of the law in 1992 resulted in repeated imprisonment. Well-behaved prisoners, released on parole, were handicapped with no benefit."
The Traditional Theory of National Security Overcome
The discussion being open to the public in 1998, the issue rode a rapid stream. First, look at some politicians. Mr. Jiangqiwen, a lawmaker of the Guomindang (the nationalist party) having experience in military related works for fifteen years and Chenxinmin, a lawmaker for the Minjindang and other politicians held dozens of public hearings, making suprapartisan legislative endeavors. The intellectuals, breaking silence, began to contribute to various media articles pointing out unreasonable punishments for conscientious objectors and advocated the introduction of the alternative service. Scholars, who had studied in Europe like Professor Chenxinmin of the National Policy Research Fund, were prominent figures. Professor Chen especially emphasized that the alternative service would not only enhance human rights protection but also contribute to the entire society. He stressed that with an excess of ten thousand people put to undermanned social welfare facilities, the quality of welfare service would be greatly enhanced. He further asserted with detailed statistics that the cheap labor would help the national budget effect a saving of three billion Taiwan dollars (ten billion Korean won).
Of course, repulsion from military authorities and the anxiety of the general public could not be overlooked. First of all, the traditional theory of a national security crisis was in the way. There were concerns that the introduction of an alternative service, with ongoing threats from mainland China, would weaken military strength. "The era has passed when the number of soldiers made a display of the military capacity," refuted Lawmaker Zhang. He added "The national attitude about security is much more important than armed forces." To second Mr. Zhang's words, Lawmaker Chen said that welfare, strengthened with the introduction of the alternative service, would bring better security.
The core issue was whether or not the alternative service would be adopted for the benefit of conscientious objectors. Worries were raised over the fairness of alternative services being introduced and possibilities of this system being improperly used to evade military service. These anxieties met with repulses that, proven over decades, even behind bars, they never accepted military service and longer periods of alternatives would not be against fairness. It was also emphasized that if the system is adopted in agreement with the international human rights standards, the national status would be exalted.
As public sentiment became amicable, the fifty lawmakers of the Suprapartisan Community Service Act Enforcement Team, including Lawmaker Chen, signed a proposal for the alternative service. With unanimous agreement by twenty-one members of the Committee of State Security, this Act was brought up for discussion in a plenary session of the national assembly and finally passed on January 15, 2000.
The alternative service may be divided broadly into two categories: (1) maintenance of public order, like police service, fire fighting etc. and (2) community service like nursing, environment preservation, educational services etc. The alternative service may cover undermanned and difficult tasks with dissatisfactory remuneration. With the alternative service law, reduction of the length of conscript service from twenty four months to twenty two months was also incorporated into law.
Insufficient Applicants in the First Year
On December 4, 2000, the International Human Rights Day, shortly after the turnover of the political power from Guomindang to Minjindang, Mr. Chensuibian, the Prime Minister gave particular pardon to six men in prison and 13 men on parole. Seven of them who had been serving for less than three years, were given the option of choosing to complete their terms or to select the alternative service. Even those who already finished twenty-four months long terms willingly accepted the alternative service. A Watchtower official said "the Guomindang saved future conscientious objectors by passing the alternative service act and Minjindang saved the past conscientious objectors through a special pardon."
This alternative service act stipulates two types of alternative servicemen. The first group consists of general alternative servicemen. After physical examination, conscripts in Taiwan are divided into three groups: servicemen on active duty, alternative servicemen, and exempts. Those classified as active servicemen, however, can apply for alternatives of their will. In other words, they are given options. In case applicants exceed the fixed number, chances are given by lot. The term for alternative services is four to six months longer than active duty, depending on the types of tasks. The volume of recruitment for last May and September were five thousand respectively. Since this was the first year of enforcing the law, much less people applied for alternatives than expected. It is widely recognized that performing the alternative service is never easier than performing active duty.
Conscientious objectors are not under military drill, whereas ordinary conscripts are trained for four months before they are assigned to various positions. Two weeks of basic training and another two weeks of professional training are on their way before appointment. The period for alternative service is thirty-three months, one and a half times longer than the active service term for exemption from military drill. The screening system is strict. Anyone applying for alternative service is required to write a statement of reasons and keep a memoir. They must be issued a written guarantee from their religious organization, too. An official from the Taiwan branch of the Watchtower Society said "Once reviewed strictly by local elders, the applications are examined closely again inside the Taiwan branch." The applications are brought up to the Examination Board under the Conscription Bureau, the Ministry of Internal Affairs for final examination. The Alternative Service Act sets limits for qualification in the enforcement regulations as "anyone who has practiced his religion for more than 2 years and recognized to be inapt for military service due to religious conscience." Like this, the alternative service system of Taiwan only recognizes religious conscientious objectors. This came short compared to objectors in European countries that admit political and social reasons as well.
If anyone is proven to have faked his conscientious reasons or is given warnings three times, he is withdrawn from the alternative service. Six months after enforcement of the law, only thirty-one people are performing alternative duties so far. Twenty-eight of them are Jehovah's Witnesses, and the other three are Buddhist monks. At present, all of the thirty-one conscientious objectors are performing alternative service in Taizhong. Fourteen of them are doing restoration work for damage from the earthquake in 1998. The other people are working in the Renaizhijia asylum just like Mr. Gaozhicheng.
At 5:30 on March 9, in the twilight coming down slowly, entering inside the asylum, we met Mr. Zhuangxinxiong (22), a conscientious objector. He was pushing a cart full of used dishes. Out of seven conscientious objectors working in the asylum, Mr. Zhuan and Mr. Chennanpeng(28) are caring for the aged. Zhuan, in charge of meals, wakes up at six in the morning to prepare breakfast. Chen must take care of thirty-two old men, from bathing them to writing letters for them and performing health checkups all by himself. The hands of the two young men who started working here from last September were blotted with colors from skin diseases caught from the old men. The other five people, including Gaozhicheng who greeted us, were gardeners. They are in charge of cultivating the flowerbed in the asylum covering eight thousand pyong. On that day, they weeded and leveled the flower garden all day long. It is not easy to work under the subtropical scorching sun. Gao, who experienced jail for two years for conscientious objection, said "this is much better than imprisonment because we can protect our conscience and contribute the society."
A Way of Practicing the Buddhist Mercy
Mr. Herongsong, a manager in charge of the asylum whom we met in the office, admired the alternative service system highly. He said, "We had been too short-handed to change diapers regularly and to help them take walks. With alternative servicemen here, it became much easier to do this work. Even the atmosphere here has become peaceful. About twenty alternative servicemen are working hard though, and seven conscientious objectors are especially honest. I'm wondering why such a nice system as this started so late."
As darkness thickened little by little, conscientious objectors gathered in the Renaizhijia asylum one after another. Among these was Mr. Hongminging (21), a Buddhist monk, who returned on a bicycle. He greeted us with his hands pressed, saying that he was on his way back after caring all day long for ten old men who lived alone. He explained why he selected the alternative service, saying "I can observe the Buddhist commandment not to take lives and put mercy into practice." In Taizhong, three monks, respectively from Gaoxiong, Xinzhu, and Taipei, are performing thirty-three month long alternative duties for religious reasons. From different denominations and not having known one another, they said that they selected alternative service according to the official announcement. "Had the alternative service system not been established, I would've joined the army." Mr. Hong said, "Then I would've been tormented a lot." He said that several monks around Mr. Hong, waiting for enlistment, were considering alternative services. Leaving the asylum behind in the silent darkness, the words of Lawmaker Chien came across my mind.
"Taiwan with four hundred thousand soldiers is against the Chinese army with two and a half millions soldiers. Moreover, China is threatening Taiwan at every opportunity to accept a 'One China' policy. The Taiwanese Defense Minister recently acknowledged that it would take only a week for China to seize Taiwan. The saber can occupy the land, however, but not our souls. Performing nonviolent alternative services, young men could cultivate affection for the poor, needy, the society and world peace. Were it not for the tenacity of the number of soldiers, it would not be that difficult for Korea to introduce the alternative service system."
Taiwan became the first country in Asia to allow conscientious objection and the alternative service system. There has been no evidence so far that national security has been intimidated by the alternative service, or it has been misused to evade military service. There have often been some gaps between worries about the future and the realities come true. The real obstacle may be the nominal equilibrium that has been hovering around us for more than half a century, i.e., uneasiness that could never be forgotten. Faces of Korean conscientious objectors in prison were overlapped with smiling Taiwanese young men who positively said, "Had it not been for the alternative service system, we would've walked in prison."
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