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Taiwan Is Reinventing Its Relationship With Its Indigenous Peoples

President-elect Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's first female leader, is vowing to improve how the state deals with its native populations — and there's a lot of work to be done.
March 15, 2016, 2:30pm
A Tao aborigine ritual. Photo via Bas Kakebeeke.

"Nuclear waste get out of Lanyu" reads Lisin's T-shirt.

Lisin is an Amis, one of Taiwan's 14 officially recognized indigenous people. Her shirt is a protest against a storage facility of nuclear waste on Lanyu, the land of the Tao — another subset of Taiwan's original population.

Like many young native Taiwanese, she enjoyed an urban lifestyle in Taiwan's capital. But inspired by the rise of indigenous activism, she moved back to her tribal village on the eastern coast to re-cultivate two small fields with crops such as corn and sweet potatoes.

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Lisin's move is a sign of the times in Taiwan. A newly elected government is ushering in a new era for the island's indigenous population.

President-elect Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to serve in the post, has already vowed to apologize for the past suffering of Taiwan's natives, and to press for reforms in policies towards the island's roughly 500,000 indigenous people.

"Why apologize? Well, looking back through history, Aborigines gradually lost their lands while under the rule of different governments and foreign powers," Tsai said last year. "Even today, they continue to be at a disadvantage in areas including economy, education and health."

President-elect Tsai Ing-wen. Photo via the Associated Press/Wally Santana

Taiwan's indigenous people are ethnically linked to inhabitants of other Pacific territories such as Malaysia and the Philippines, arriving on the island long before the Han Chinese started migrating from China in the 17th century. But due to forced assimilation, intermarriage and subjugation by the Japanese and the Chinese nationalists who fled to Taiwan in 1949, indigenous groups now only make up around 2 percent of the island's 23 million people.

Many of the challenges indigenous people now face, such as forced land evictions, tourist development, and dumping of nuclear waste, "are all related and congregate on land issues," said Chun-chieh Chi, professor in ethnic relations at the National Dong-Hwa University in Taiwan.

And the indigenous activists are well aware of where those problems originate.

"I see you as human beings."

When Kawlo Iyun Pacidal walked into a nondescript municipal government conference room on a sunny day in November, she was just an Amis activist. Now, she's a member of Taiwan's legislature. Inside the conference room, local officials, developers and environmental activists had gathered to discuss plans to build a park for 3.000 stray dogs in Lisin's hometown, on land claimed as ancestral by a local Amis tribe.

The state official who was tasked with representing indigenous issues at the meeting, for Kawlo, was emblematic of the problem. "You don't understand the Indigenous Basic Act at all," Kawlo fired at the official during the meeting.

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The Indigenous Basic Act was pushed through in 2005 by then-president Chen Shui-bian, leader of Tsai's centre-left Democratic Progressive Party. The Basic Act confers a range of fundamental rights on Taiwan's natives.

But the implementation of the law was later stalled by the centre-right Nationalist Party, under President Ma Ying-jeou, when they came back to power in 2008. The Nationalist government was not keen to advance indigenous issues, said Chi. "The main reason being, [they were] more interested in China issues, and to some extent even suppressed the vibrant indigenous legislation process."

While running for president, Ma told a group of indigenous villagers: "I see you as human beings." Although the statement was meant as a gesture of goodwill, it was perceived by Taiwan's indigenous population as an offensive reminder of colonial times. Years later, indigenous activists against the dog park — the one proposed in Lisin's hometown — satirically portrayed Ma in a cartoon telling a dog "I see you as human beings" while aboriginals are kicked off the land behind his back.

Related: Taiwan Just Elected Its First Female President — And Now She Has to Deal With China

But Ma's Nationalists were defeated this year, and Tsai's Progressives are back. Kawlo, recently elected as lawmaker, has organized fierce resistance against the dog park for years. Without enforcing the Basic Act, fundamental land rights enshrined are inconsequential, said Kawlo.

During colonial rule, the Japanese appropriated their land and later passed to the Nationalists as state property. In order to formalize land as 'indigenous land' to get reserve status under the Basic Act, they need to go through a lot of red tape which can take years.

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The infamous dog park, for example, is on ancestral land of the local tribe where two local elders were living.

"Why do I fight so hard? It's because of this," said Kawlo, referring to the elders. "They hadn't formally obtained the land [as reserve land] and now one of them has passed away."

Most applications to designate land to Taiwan's indigenous people have been rejected or stalled, said Scott Simon, research chair in Taiwan Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Huang Ah-rong, an Amis in his late 70s, said he applied to have his small agricultural plot legally recognized, but five years later he is still waiting. As a result, he said, wholesale buyers will not pay him the market rate and he needs to cultivate even more unofficial land to make ends meet.

Huang Ah-rong and his wife. Photo credit: Linda van der Horst

At the heart of the problem is that the definition of 'indigenous land' under the Basic Act is not a clear concept, and the lack of subsequent implementation of this law leaves too much ambiguity for exploitation and land grabbing. Indigenous tribes once inhabited the whole island and lived off the resources of the land collectively — they did not demarcate specific land ownership.

But even in the remote mountainous areas, where the lack of development made it easier to obtain reserve status under the Basic Act, the stalled implementation of the Basic Act still prevents indigenous tribes to preserve their traditional livelihoods, like hunting. Even though the act recognizes the importance of hunting, Tama Talum of the Bulun tribe was arrested in 2013 for illegal weapon possession and poaching, even though he was hunting to provide food for his family. Talum's case became an example of the plight of indigenous people, and his lawyers have argued that it is a discrimination against Aboriginals, and have asked the court last week for a constitutional interpretation.

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Indigenous people in Taiwan need to model their negotiations with the government after indigenous peoples in other countries, like Canada, and assert their sovereignty, said Chi. "Mostly because [they don't have this], they cannot have good holding and good control of the land that they supposed to have, or supposed to control."

Related: This Is a Moment in Canadian Politics Indigenous People Have Been Waiting For

As they push for more political power, Taiwan's native people are expanding their cultural identity. The historical drama Seediq Bale, based on an uprising which pitted indigenous Taiwanese against the colonial Japanese, entered mainstream Taiwanese theatre in 2011.

This month, an indigenous dance group is taking the stage in the Taiwan National Theatre with a production full of political innuendos on the poor treatment of the Tao land rights on Lanyu.

Wawa no cidal, released in 2015, is a story very similar to that of Lisin — an indigenous woman returns to her ancestral village to re-cultivate the land and save it from being snatched for the development of a luxury resort. The film's realism and authenticity resonated with Taiwan's audience; it won the Taipei International Film Festival's audience award.

Simon said the native population still struggles to communicate this self-awareness to other Taiwanese. He said he hopes that they can emulate the "Idle no more" movement, which brought Aboriginal concerns to a wider audience in Canada. "If all of the Taiwanese people could recognize that they all live together on that relatively small island, that would solve a lot of problems."

While president-elect Tsai has expressed a willingness to press for indigenous reforms, her new government has other priorities — notably improving the economy and balancing delicate relations with China.

Kawlo has just entered Tsai's newly-elected parliament to lobby for the implementation of the basic law, even though she said that the government still mainly represents the ethnically Han Chinese majority.

Nevertheless, Kawlo is optimistic that the tide has turned for her people.