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Taiwan: Will it retain independence or be taken over?

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After the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, there continues over there a painful period of adjustment and as we hear, grave shortages of essentials to the general population. There also seem to be Afghans eligible to migrate to the US awaiting permission to go. The G7 has promised help and President Biden specifically stated much financial and other aid would come to the people of Afghanistan but through international aid agencies.

The current hot spot of probable conflict and growing tension is Taiwan, and yes, if inflamed, could be much worse than the Afghan conflagration. On October 10, President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, insisted in her speech at the National Day celebrations in Taipei, that Taiwan would not succumb to Chinese dominance nor join mainland China as a unified nation. Tsai emphasized “resilience, unity, diversity, competitiveness, and renewed confidence and pledged to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty and denounced unprecedented challenges brought by China’s recent military coercion.”

At the same time, China staged a massive show of force in celebration of the 110th anniversary of the revolution that established the first Chinese Republic. Chinese President Xi Jinping made it almost militantly clear that China calls for “Taiwan’s peaceful reconciliation with China in Taiwan’s best interests.” He urged the island state to “stand on the right side of history.” This statement was denounced by Taiwan’s President as a “distortion of history” and called on Beijing to stop threatening the island.

In The Island of October 13, Gwynne Dyer gives a fine analysis of the problem and says that China will baulk at the prospect of invading Taiwan because it will face blocking of all sea routes on which its trade is totally dependent. Western nations, Japan, Korea, even India will not stand by and merely watch a military invasion by Chinese forces of independent Taiwan.

Support for Taiwan

The G7 at the end of its meeting in Cornwall in June 2021, affirmed the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and their strong opposition to any “unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions.” China immediately denounced G7 for interfering. “For the Chinese Communist Party, the status of Taiwan is a sensitive topic. Together with Tibet, and the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, foreign visitors to China are routinely advised to avoid any discussion of it. To China’s leaders, Taiwan is an indivisible part of the ‘big Motherland’, a ‘renegade province’ that will eventually, by persuasion, coercion or force if necessary, be ‘reunited’ with mainland China. Alternative views are firmly suppressed.”

Taiwan, smaller in area than the Netherlands, is considered to be on par with Australia in its economy and population. “For a country that in 1950 was poor, overwhelmingly agricultural and exported labour to the Philippines, this has been a huge achievement and one that owes nothing to China.”

History

Reading about Taiwan was very interesting. That island was originally named Formosa, which dates from 1542 when Portuguese sailors sighted an uncharted island and named it ‘Ilha Formosa’ – beautiful island. In 1625, the Dutch East India Company established a base in Taiwan.

The Ming rulers in China were increasingly preoccupied with a growing threat from the Manchu, or Qing, to the north. In 1644, Beijing fell and the Ming dynasty ended, succeeded by the Qing who ruled Formosa too. In 1911, the Qing Dynasty collapsed and that date is when the Republic of China in the island was established.

In 1861, Great Britain opened the first consulate on the island and “early consular reports are peppered with frustration at the unwillingness or outright refusal of government representatives on the island to adhere to agreements set down in bilateral treaties.”

The Japanese had controlled Taiwan for 50 years (1895-1945) with Tokyo sending 19 governors general to rule Taiwan. Upon the defeat of Japan in August 1945, Chiang Kai-shek, who was head of China sent troops and administrators to take control of Taiwan. “The Taiwanese had been expecting liberation from Japanese rule to lead to self-government, not the imposition of another regime. The move was far from popular, dissatisfaction only compounded by Chiang’s handling of it. Corruption, nepotism and minor altercations grew, and hardly any locals spoke Mandarin, yet overnight this was imposed as the official language. Not surprisingly, resentment grew while the economy collapsed, culminating in major riots at the end of February 1947. These were brutally put down. By some estimates as many as 20,000 Taiwanese lost their lives.”

Beginnings of modern Taiwan

Chiang was an ally to the Brits and Americans, helping them to defeat Japan in WW II. Then came the civil war with the communists led by Mao Zedong and Chiang’s Nationalists were defeated in 1948. The next year his government and army retreated to Taiwan where he presided over a tumultuous period of martial law, social reforms and economic prosperity. He was President of the Republic of China for five six-year terms and also Director General of the Kuomintang until his death in 1975. It was a rival government to China and the world’s nations had to choose between the two. Most recognised mainland China. “Just 15 nations, most of them small island states in the Caribbean or Pacific, have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.” Between 1946 and 1949 an estimated one million mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan, whose own population in 1940 had been less than six million.

After Chiang died in 1975, his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, sensing the changing tide of global opinion in favour of the People’s Republic of China, took the first steps towards the introduction of democratic government. Martial law was lifted in 1987 and in 1996 the Taiwanese were finally able to choose their own president through direct elections. Since then, democratic governance has taken firm root and the present President is the fourth and first woman to head the nation. Opinion polls show a growing majority consider themselves Taiwanese, not Chinese; proud of their country’s history and identity.

Mao Zedong, once he came into power, had aimed at bringing Taiwan under the party’s control as part of the ‘Motherland’. “Mao might have succeeded, too, had he not intervened in support of Kim Il-sung in the Korean War in 1950, prompting the US to move to support Chiang on Taiwan.”

The San Francisco Conference of 1951 was convened to conclude the peace agreement with Japan and agree on the post-war order in Asia. “Although Japan renounced its claim to Taiwan, with the US and UK recognising different Chinese governments, both of which were excluded from the conference, no agreement was reached and a decision on the status of Taiwan was shelved. As far as Britain was concerned, de jure sovereignty over Taiwan remained undetermined, while the US recognised Chiang’s Republic of China in Taipei as the legitimate Chinese government, a position that only changed in 1979.”

Taiwanese companies are among the biggest investors, exporters and employers in China. “The rapprochement reached its pinnacle in 2015 in Singapore, with the first ever meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan. The move was widely interpreted in Taiwan as an attempt to boost the prospects of a ‘China-friendly’ president in the election due in early 2016; which misfired badly. After Tsai Ing-wen’s victory, China largely cut off official contact and stepped up its threats and intimidation against the island. In 2020 Tsai was re-elected in a landslide, her success widely attributed to Taiwanese reactions to China’s clampdown in Hong Kong in the preceding months.” And now unless mainland China, it is said, can bring itself to accept reality, the Taiwan Strait will remain one of the world’s potential flashpoints.

NOTE:

Facts given above are mainly from a long article by Michael Reilly, who is a non-resident Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham. From 2005-09, he was the British representative in Taiwan. He is the author of The Great Free Trade Myth: British Foreign Policy and East Asia Since 1980 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). The article I quote from is ‘Between China and a Hard Place’ in History Today, Vol 71:10, Oct 2021.



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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