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Taiwan president tells China to face up to June 4

TAIPEI (Reuters) - The president of Taiwan, a self-ruled island claimed by China, told Beijing on Thursday to face up to the truth about the Tiananmen Square crackdown 20 years ago, a departure from his usual conciliatory tone.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou answers questions to journalists during a news conference in San Salvador in this May 31, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Luis Galdamez/Files

Tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square before dawn on June 4, 1989 to crush weeks of student and worker protests. China’s Communist Party has never released a death toll and has branded the pro-democracy demonstrations a counter-revolutionary plot.

“This painful period of history must be faced with courage and cannot be intentionally ducked,” President Ma Ying-jeou said in a statement.

Ma’s comments break from his usual friendly tone towards Beijing, with which he has pursued detente since his election last year after six decades of tensions between the two sides.

“Any government, in facing unpleasant history, must deal with the matter on its own merit,” Ma said in the statement.

The ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) wants stronger trade ties with economic powerhouse China, but the opposition blasted Ma for going too easy when he praised Beijing on June 4 last year for its reforms.

In 1995, then-KMT President Lee Teng-hui made a formal apology on behalf of the government for a KMT crackdown on dissent in Taiwan that began in 1947 and caused the deaths of an estimated 20,000 people.

Ma told reporters on a trip to Central America this week that today’s China should not be judged by the 1989 crackdown.

Ma, an ex-justice minister and human rights advocate, used to speak more harshly about June 4, which was also marked in Taipei by candlelight vigil.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT fled to Taiwan. China has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.