Taiwan "martial law" flap backfires on president

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TAIPEI, Nov 27 (Reuters) Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's threat of a return to martial law in a row over a referendum has touched off a media storm, forcing his party into damage control today by invoking political rival China.

The flap, involving a proposal to hold a referendum on the opposition's ''inappropriately obtained assets'' in January on the same day as a legislative election, looked likely to tarnish Chen's image, already suffering from graft allegations against members of his family and former office aides.

Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) takes satisfaction in having pressured the then-ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) to end decades of martial law in 1987, heralding the island's move to full democracy.

It also prides itself on putting space between Taiwan and China, which has claimed sovereignty over the self-ruled island since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Raising the ''China threat'' is an oft-used DPP electoral tactic.

''It's a big blunder for him,'' said Shane Lee, a political science professor at Taiwan's Chang Jung University. ''The president talked too fast.'' Chen said on Sunday he would ''consider'' martial law to impose the referendum in which Taiwan residents would be asked if the state should seize the KMT's ''ill-gotten'' assets.

Yesterday, he denied any intention to declare martial law. And then today, Chen's party said he would declare martial law only in the event of a military strike by China.

China threatened as late as 2005 to use force against Taiwan, if it were necessary to bring it back under mainland control.

DPP spokeswoman Hsieh Hsin-ni saidon today Chen would only declare martial law if the Chinese Communists attacked Taiwan, not to advance a political plan.

''Our party wants to pursue freedom and human rights. We can't take the road backwards,'' Hsieh said. ''(Martial law) was an idea from someone in the public. The president didn't mean to say he supported that himself.'' REUTERS RJ ND1520

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