TAIPEI, Taiwan — Last month, Swaziland's Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini, an aspiring rapper and actress, wrapped up a lavish five-day tour of Taiwan.
According to Swaziland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the princess — the eldest child of King Mswati III, the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa — was on a fact-finding mission. She met with hip-hop producers, visited art galleries and sat down with Taipei’s film set.
Her visit is only the most recent display of warmth between Taiwan and Swaziland. Over the years, Swaziland has embraced Taiwan despite the island's diplomatic isolation, and Taiwan has in turn welcomed Swaziland's friendship, despite the royals' reputation for corruption and cruelty.
Though Taiwan likes to trumpet its democratic credentials against the spotty human rights record of China, the truth is that Taiwan has a track record of cooperating with brutal autocratic regimes, particularly in Africa.
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In addition to Swaziland, Burkina Faso and Gambia make the relatively short list of Taiwan's friends. And the diplomatically marginalized island was a chief supporter and arms supplier to South Africa during the apartheid years.
“Our relationship [with Swaziland] is very solid and cordial. It supports us in the international arena against China,” said an official from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Africa desk, who gave her name as Sophie. “We are a democratic country, but we respect other systems.”
In Swaziland, that "other system" involves an autocratic regime rife with corruption. The polygamous king and his sprawling family, which includes around a dozen wives and 24 kids, have somehow remained unscathed during a continuing economic crisis in the landlocked southern African country where two-thirds of the 1.4 million population survive on less than $1 a day.
While ordinary Swazis suffer, Forbes magazine named Mswati the world’s 15th wealthiest monarch in 2011, with a personal fortune of $100 million. Finance Minister Majozi Sithole has said that government corruption costs the country nearly twice the annual amount budgeted for social services.
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Moreover, the king, who is planning his 13th visit to Taiwan soon, brutally cracked down on protesters last year, according to Amnesty International. “[A]rbitrary and secret detentions, unlawful house arrests and other state of emergency-style measures were used to crush peaceful anti-government protests,” Amnesty said in its report, released in May.
So why does the Republic of China — Taiwan’s official name since Chiang Kai-shek’s battered forces cemented control of the island following their civil war loss to Mao Zedong’s troops — hold itself up as a “beacon of democracy in Asia” on one hand, and heavily support ruthless despots on the other?
The answer is in the numbers. Taipei has just 23 official allies and thus, can’t afford to be too choosy when picking its friends.
Taiwan’s been hemorrhaging allies ever since the Republic of China was expelled from the United Nations in 1971, and its seat handed to China.
Most of its allies are in Africa or Latin America. Taiwan's only European friend is Vatican City. The nation to most recently switch allegiance from The People’s Republic of China to Taiwan is Kiribati, a tiny Pacific archipelago that may not exist in a few decades if the sea-level rises as predicted.
Parris Chang, a former lawmaker and deputy director of Taiwan’s National Security Council, told GlobalPost that he has visited many of the countries with which Taiwan has friendly relations.
"Some of those leaders are SOBs [sons-of-bitches], but they are our SOBs. ... A more diplomatic approach is to say ‘human rights are merely one of several important issues a government must weigh up [in a relationship],’” said Chang.
Taiwan's nationalist President Ma Ying-jeou embarked on a 12-day tour of three of Taiwan’s allies in early April. Members of the opposition blasted the trip as chequebook diplomacy.
In Burkina Faso, Ma met with brutal dictator President Blaise Compaore, who took over the country after murdering his boss in a coup in 1987. In Gambia, Ma cozied up to “colorful” President Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, who also took power through a coup — this time in 1994.
Jammeh says he’s invented a herbal cure for AIDS that requires sufferers to stop taking drugs prescribed to fight the virus. He also ordered the expulsion of all gays from the country in 2008. If they stayed, he said, he’ll “have their heads cut off.”
Ma wrapped up the tour with a visit to old friend King Mswati III, where they had a sit-up competition, and the king presented the Harvard grad with a leopard’s head.
Meanwhile, business between Swaziland and Taiwan is picking up.
There are 25 Taiwanese-owned factories in Swaziland — mostly working in the garment sector — that employ some 15,000 people, predominantly women. Swaziland media reports that the factories have been heavily criticized for paying their workers near slave wages. One report said some of the women were resorting to prostitution to get by.