TAIPEI, Taiwan, Feb. 28 -- Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui offered an official apology Tuesday for the massacre of countless civilians during the military supression of a popular uprising 48 years ago. Still, Taiwan's ruling and opposition parties are at odds over how much compensation should be given to the families of thousands who were slain. 'Today the descendants of those victims can see this memorial with its historical significance,' Lee said during a ceremony to unveil a huge stone monument in memory of those who died in the uprising that began February 28, 1947. The uprising, which was sparked by a confrontation between Nationalist military police and a street vendor selling untaxed cigarettes, exploded into what some say was nothing short of systematic murders and persecution. Fueling riots and demonstrations was the then prevalent ill feeling toward the Nationalist Chinese government, considered an outside occupying force by many native Taiwanese. The fate of Lin Mao-sheng, Dean of National Taiwan University and the island's first American Ph,D., who was dragged off by plainclothes police and never seen again, was shared by countless other victims. 'The descendants of the victims can now see and hear for themselves as I take responsibilty, and deliver my deepest apologies in my capacity as the head of state,' President Lee told a crowd at the memorial. Lee, a native Taiwanese who reportedly escaped being killed by Nationalist troops during the uprising by fleeing to the mountains, later became the ruling party's first Taiwanese chairman and president.
'I trust all here will be understanding and put the past behind us,' he said. 'From today on, the historic tragedy and bitter memory of the uprising should not be a cloud over our heads, but the power and motivation to build a better future,' Lee said. 'The Feb. 28 incident is Taiwan's most significant historical incident, and deserves a monument,' Academia Senica History Professor Lai Tze-han said. 'But if Lee wanted to apologize, he should have used more direct language instead of just expressing his 'deepest apologies,'' said Lai, co-author of a breakthrough 1992 government report on the massacre. Public attention now focuses on more pragamatic matters, such as wether there will be a national day of rememberance and just how much compensation the victims' families can expect. Taipei city Mayor Chen Shui-pien, who became the city's first opposition mayor after an historic election last year, promised to designate Feb. 28 Taipei Peace Day, and will introduce the subject into city school textbooks. Ruling party and opposition lawmakers remain at odds over the amount of compensation, with the ruling party setting a ceiling of $230,769 and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party demanding $384,615 for each victim. At least 2,000 people have been officially registered as victims of the military massacre in 1947 and subsequent killings and mysterious disappearences. Unofficial total death tolls from the anti-government uprising and military crackdown reach anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000. Lee's speech and apology, if subtle, had been long-awaited by the island's opposition groups, and should be a boon to the ruling party during the Taiwan's first popular presidential elections next year, and to Lee if he chooses to run, analysts said.