Taiwan's military's real foe

TAIWAN - The Taiwanese military is in a period of soul-searching (and, some suggest, internal conflict) following the controversial death of Corporal Hung Chung-chiu, which drew 200,000 protesters to the streets last week and took down a defence minister.

The resignation of Mr Kao Hua-chu's replacement - Mr Andrew Yang - six days after taking office due to plagiarism accusations, is another blow.

The scandal grew into a national crisis in no small part due to the numerous tip-offs and exposes by current and former servicemen. Everyone has a tale to tell about their "dark days in the army".

The controversy, however, underlines a more profound danger for Taiwan. Military forces around the world have not been known for their respect of human rights, nor their transparency.

As organisations dedicated to the art and science of efficient eradication of people, the armed forces can find itself psychologically far removed from the norms and rules of the civilian society it defends.

Brigadier-General John Murphy, a commanding general of the Division Artillery of the United States' 100th Infantry Division during World War II, dismissed the idea of a democratic army as absurd, saying such a force would be an "undisciplined mob".

Many US servicemen and women are probably still reminded of a similar philosophy by their boot-camp sergeants: "You are here to defend democracy, not to practise it." The significance of Taiwan's spectacular response to Cpl Hung's death is therefore twofold.

First, it highlights the Taiwanese people's extraordinarily high regard for human rights. Second, it reveals the predicament of the nation's armed forces, which seem to have lost its purpose.Decades of military stand-off and Taiwan's recent detente with the mainland seem to have stripped the military of its purpose and a substantial amount of respect.

Without a sense of military urgency, the armed forces is often seen by the outside world as nothing more than an extension of government bureaucracy and, by at least some inside, as a place for profiteering and bullying. Such idleness is dangerous, especially when it is not shared by one's rival.

Before a political resolution between Beijing and Taipei can be reached (an unlikely scenario in the future), peace across the Taiwan Strait has to be maintained by keeping the status quo, which includes the military balance between the two territories.

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