TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's government has ordered a freeze on the opposition Kuomintang's bank account, officials said Thursday (Sep 22), as part of an investigation into its allegedly ill-gotten political assets.
The order comes as political tensions remain high on the deeply divided island after the Beijing-friendly KMT were ousted by a landslide in January elections.
The new Beijing-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party government announced a probe into the assets of all parties in late July, but it is only the KMT that has faced questions.
The KMT is thought to be one of the richest political parties in the world and registered total assets of NT$18.96 billion (S$822 million) by the end of last year, compared with NT$478.72 million by the DPP.
The party traces its wealth to its origins in pre-communist China - KMT forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Chinese communists on the mainland.
It also inherited assets nationalised by the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan as a colony from 1895-1945.
However, critics have long accused the party of stealing from the people of Taiwan and illegally amassing fortunes through cosy business links during its half-century grip on power.
Government investigators say the KMT withdrew NT$520 million from Taiwan's Bank SinoPac soon after the asset probe got under way and exchanged it for 10 cashier's cheques from the state-run Bank of Taiwan.
One of those cheques has already been cashed.
KMT officials say it was used to pay salaries and pensions.
But investigators say the money should not have been moved since the probe had already started.
The party has slammed the investigation as a witch-hunt.
"The KMT violated the law which prohibits it from moving its assets," the Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee said in a statement.
"Bank SinoPac has been notified to halt withdrawing or transferring money from that account."
The freeze was the asset committee's first major action against the KMT.
KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu called it a "vendetta" and said the party should rally outside President Tsai's home.
"The action we took is just and for the purpose of fulfilling our legal duties," KMT spokesman Chou Chih-wei told AFP.
Tsai and the DPP took power on the back of increased public concern over warming ties with China, following an unprecedented eight-year rapprochement under the previous KMT government.
Taiwan is self-ruling, but China still sees it as part of its territory. Voters feared the island's sovereignty was under threat as the KMT forged closer relations with Beijing.
Since Tsai took power, relations have rapidly deteriorated and Beijing has cut off all official communications with Taiwan.