Hope, doubts over Tsai's apology to aborigines

Taiwan's first leader with aboriginal links to also outline policies on indigenous people

The Aboriginal Puzangalan Choir singing the national anthem at Ms Tsai's inauguration ceremony in Taipei in May.
The Aboriginal Puzangalan Choir singing the national anthem at Ms Tsai's inauguration ceremony in Taipei in May.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hundreds of aboriginal activists gathered yesterday in Taipei's main thoroughfare Ketagalan Boulevard to voice their demands ahead of a highly-anticipated apology by Taiwan's new president.

They are calling for concrete measures to redress the historical injustices the indigenous groups have suffered and to restore the aboriginal cultures.

The peaceful protests took place in the boulevard, which was renamed 20 years ago in honour of the Ketagalan tribe, one of Taiwan's many tribes who inhabited the island long before the Han Chinese migration 400 years ago.

Today, representatives from Taiwan's 16 aboriginal tribes will be invited into the Presidential Building in front of the boulevard and President Tsai Ing-wen will deliver the island's first formal apology to the island's indigenous people.

Ms Tsai, the first Taiwanese leader with aboriginal blood, will also outline today her policies concerning the country's indigenous people. Ms Tsai's paternal grandmother was from the Paiwan indigenous tribe.

As part of efforts to ease the longstanding tension between the government and aboriginals, Ms Tsai will also announce details of a planned aboriginal transitional justice commission that will be overseen by the Presidential Office.

Last month, her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) promised to pass the Aboriginal Basic Act which will, among other things, grant greater self-rule autonomy to the indigenous communities, protect their languages and safeguard their land and sea rights.

  • Taiwan's aborigine population

  • • There are about 540,000 aboriginals in Taiwan, making up about 2.3 per cent of the island's 23 million population.

    • They are subdivided into 16 tribes, which include the Amis and Atayal tribes. Anthropologists say Taiwan's aboriginals came from the Malay archipelago thousands of years ago.

    • The majority of Taiwan's population are descendants of Chinese immigrants who arrived from the mainland 400 years ago. Most speak the Minnan or Hakka dialects.

    • The end of the civil war on the Chinese mainland in 1949 led to another wave of Han Chinese immigration to Taiwan

    • Decades of assimilation, inter-marriages and neglect have eroded many of the practices that had made indigenous cultures distinctive, from native dress to language.

    • Aboriginal unemployment is higher than the rest of the workforce; their wages are about 40 per cent less than the national average, according to the government's Council of Indigenous Peoples.

    • The aboriginal groups want the government to: return them the ancestral land that was taken away by previous governments; lift the ban on hunting; include aborigines in transitional justice legislation; give better recognition to the self-rule rights of aboriginals; and overhaul the education system to prevent further loss of tribal languages (five are classified as "severely endangered" by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

    Jermyn Chow

Many are also calling for aborigines to be covered under the so-called transitional justice legislation that has been launched by the DPP to redress political persecution from 1949 to 1990.

Under the martial law period from 1949 to 1987, aborigines were forced to adopt Chinese names.

Aboriginal legislator Kao Chin Su-mei. one of six aboriginal lawmakers in Taiwan's 113-seat Parliament, told The Straits Times that it remains to be seen if Ms Tsai will keep her promises, especially one on the return of ancestral lands.

"We always hear a lot of talk about engaging the aboriginal community and helping us. But it seems to be political rhetoric because there has been little positive impact on our lives. Let's hope it's different this time round."

Mr Pan Chih-hua, one of 300 members of the Aboriginal Alliance for Transitional Justice, marched 450km from Taiwan's south-western town of Hengchun to take part in the protest at Ketagalan Boulevard. He said: "Apologising is just a start...We hope the government will follow up with real actions to restore our dignity and give us the respect we deserve."

Mr Chang Tien-ming, who heads the Indigenous People's Autonomy Alliance, said: "We want peace and are not seeking independence. We also want to be treated fairly rather than be seen as outcasts."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline 'Hope, doubts over Tsai's apology to aborigines'. Subscribe