President Tsai Ing-wen yesterday became Taiwan's first leader to formally apologise to the island's indigenous people, pledging to pursue a path of reconciliation with the aborigines, who have been marginalised since the arrival of Chinese immigrants 400 years ago.
In a 15-minute speech, Ms Tsai said "sorry" 10 times for the actions of past governments, which forced aboriginal groups to give up their land rights and practices as well as eroded aboriginal culture.
Today, aboriginal unemployment is higher than among the rest of the workforce and their wages are about 40 per cent less than the national average, according to the government's Council of Indigenous Peoples. Major issues such as alcoholism and poverty plague the 540,000-strong community that makes up 2.3 per cent of Taiwan's 23 million population.
"Unless we deny that we are an island of justice, we must face up to this history. We must tell the truth. And then, most importantly, the government must genuinely reflect on this past. This is why I stand here today," said Ms Tsai, who is the first Taiwanese leader with aboriginal blood. The 59-year-old's paternal grandmother was from the Paiwan tribe.
She added: "I do not dare ask you to forgive, here and now. But I sincerely ask you to sustain the hope that past wrongs will not be repeated, and that one day, (Taiwan) can see true reconciliation."
Some 100 lawmakers and representatives from Taiwan's 16 aboriginal groups, dressed in their native costumes, sat before Ms Tsai in the Presidential Office Building, some tearing as she delivered the historic apology. They had been personally welcomed by Ms Tsai, who wore a grey jacket with black butterfly patterns designed by an aboriginal artist.
Noting that an apology will not resolve the injustices that aborigines have suffered for centuries, Ms Tsai outlined measures to grant greater autonomy to the indigenous communities, protect their languages and safeguard their land and hunting rights.
She said she will personally head the Historical and Transitional Justice Commission to investigate past injustices as part of government efforts to ease tensions with the native community.
She will also push the Executive Yuan to introduce a basic law for the aborigines and focus on improving their education, health and economic development.
By Nov 1, Ms Tsai also wants to identify and announce land belonging to aborigines.
Speaking on behalf of the aboriginal groups, 80-year-old Capen Nganaen of the Yami tribe said he was grateful for Ms Tsai's gesture and hoped to see the government honour the promises she made.
But not all are satisfied, and more than 30 aborigines yesterday gathered outside the Presidential Office Building to demand that more be done.
Singer-songwriter Panai Kusui, who had performed at Ms Tsai's inauguration ceremony in May, said: "I'm not sure saying sorry is enough to undo all the wrongs... we need to see more actions."
Several of the six aboriginal legislators also turned down the invitation to the ceremony. One of them, Ms Kao Chin Su-mei, said: "Ms Tsai can say and do what she wants. But until we see real changes, I think we will still have to fight for our own rights."