What you need to know
Taiwan looks set to open the door for its indigenous people to achieve some degree of autonomy. Will the rest of the population accept it?
A new vision for indigenous self-determination is expected to be detailed by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the coming months. The policy may involve devolving significant decision-making power at local government level to the country’s 16 indigenous tribes.
“It will definitely be very controversial for non-indigenous people,” says Legislator Kolas Yotaka, a member of the East Coast Amis people and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Legislator Kolas, who has met with President Tsai in recent weeks, says that the plan may involve redefining the local government rules to allow Hualien and Taitung to be “autonomous districts.” The two counties cover much of Taiwan’s eastern mountain ranges and coastline and are home to the some of the largest groups of indigenous people, including the Amis.
“It means that we might have to ‘erase’ Hualien County and Taitung County; there won’t be any Hualien or Taitung mayors anymore,” the legislator says.
The policy will be among the first concrete proposals from the Tsai administration to address what Tsai in 2015 called the “oppression and exploitation” suffered by Taiwan’s indigenous people throughout the country’s turbulent history.
“Although history is the past, its influence persists today,” said Tsai, then a presidential candidate, in a speech during the run-up to the January 2016 election that thrust Tsai and the DPP into power. “This is why we must reasonably make up for the injustices that history has left behind, in order to mitigate the injury it has caused.”
Tsai’s campaign rhetoric was reaffirmed just months after taking office, when she captured headlines around the world after issuing a formal apology to Taiwan’s indigenous people – who now number about 535,000 or 2 percent of the country’s 23.5 million people – on behalf of the government for “four centuries of pain and mistreatment.”
In the highly symbolic speech on Aug. 1, 2016, President Tsai acknowledged the fault of past governments for many grievances, including the notorious storage of nuclear waste on Orchid Island. She also noted government agencies had not given sufficient weight to the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, which was put in place more than ten years earlier, and she announced the establishment of the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Commission under the Presidential Office.
“Our actions have not been fast enough, comprehensive enough or sound enough,” Tsai said.
In an interview at her parliamentary office in Taipei, Legislator Kolas, takes care to show the extent of the original traditional territory inhabited by indigenous people, illustrating the potential land claims.
“We owned this land, almost the whole island,” she says as an infographic plays in a video she produced during her former career as an award-winning journalist.
Legislator Kolas details three key stages of land acquisition by immigrant forces: waves of immigration from China during the Qing Dynasty pushing people inland from Taiwan’s western plains; the arrival of the Japanese colonizers in the late 19th century, whose thirst for Taiwan’s natural resources during a 50-year occupation pushed the indigenous people further into isolated coastal areas and central and eastern highlands; and the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the Kuomintang that would lead to further marginalization and eventually the creation of large swathes of national parks, limiting indigenous people’s access to traditional lands.
There are some “radical” factions that today continue to claim the entire island for the indigenous people but the legislator believes that for most indigenous people co-management is more important than the idea of “kicking out” the Han Chinese population, which comprises most of the country’s population.
“We indigenous people have to admit that a nation, a country, a government already exists. It is a fact. It is impossible to go back to 400 years ago,” Legislator Kolas says. “The government should open the door to allow the indigenous people to share the decision-making rights. That is transitional justice for me.”
Intertwined with the bid to attain co-management and self-determination is the call for improved hunting and fishing rights – namely access for indigenous people to traditional areas that are now protected for conservation. The legislator is currently negotiating with officials responsible for Taiwan’s forests and national parks to create a new co-management model. Despite Kolas maintaining that her people’s requests are quite humble – the claims are typically not for legal ownership of natural resources – the issue is contentious. In the heavily industrialized country, conservationists place a high premium on the biodiversity benefits and protection the parks offer.
“It is really hard, it all depends on the [individual] ministers – they have to open their hearts,” she says of the negotiations.
Several cases involving indigenous people who have been arrested have exposed the ongoing conflict between the rights of access to land in traditional areas, and the enforcement of environmental laws.
“It is unfair to indigenous people,” Legislator Kolas says. “Their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, they hunted, grew vegetables, raised pigs and chickens in the forest, but now it is illegal.”
The tension between indigenous rights and environmental protection is not unique to Taiwan. In Australia, high-profile indigenous leader and land rights advocate Noel Pearson attacked the state government for several years in the late 2000s over its plan to give special protection to certain rivers in Queensland. In New Zealand, a plan to create a large ocean sanctuary around the Kermadec Islands in the Pacific Ocean late last year drew the ire of some who are concerned Maori will lose existing fishing rights.
Tsai’s apology, while certainly not a panacea for centuries of mistreatment, has already made a difference for indigenous rights advocates. Legislator Kolas points to the long-running national identification card issue, which she initially covered as a journalist. In the 1990s, indigenous people won the right to include their “indigenous name” on the identification cards all Taiwanese are required to carry. But on the backside of the card, where one’s parents’ names are listed, there was only space for the standard Chinese names, rather than the longer romanticized indigenous names.
“Officials from the Ministry of Interior Affairs didn’t want to change it,” she says. “I told them, ‘Don’t forget your president apologized to indigenous people. So how come you don’t like indigenous people putting our names – it is just names – on these cards?’”
In response to the legislator’s complaints, last year officials rescinded their opposition and new cards should be available this year. The debate showed the apology can be used “as a weapon” in the battle to change the mindsets of officials, Kolas says.
“We don’t have to protest on the street all the time; we did that 20 years ago,” she says.
Still, Legislator Kolas acknowledges the apology is “not magic; you cannot change people’s mentality right away.”
She believes the discrimination towards indigenous people is ingrained and subsequently there is a lack of awareness towards the issues they face. On the day of the interview with The News Lens, the legislator had just returned from a lunch with other legislators and officials. She says, as is often the case, she was introduced by several officials as “the beautiful indigenous female legislator.”
The emphasis on “beautiful” and “indigenous” reflects an underlying negative view of indigenous people, she suggests.
“People think indigenous people are dumb, lazy and get divorced all the time,” she says. “Even when my little brother wanted to marry a Han Chinese girl, her parents were against my brother and my family.”
After years of raising awareness of indigenous issues as a television reporter, the legislator suggests there is still a long way to go in educating Taiwanese about the country’s history. Still, she is hopeful once the general population has a better understanding of how land was traditionally used, and about the many important military battles that have influenced Taiwan’s history, a deeper respect for indigenous rights should emerge.
“We cannot change Taiwan overnight,” she says, adding that a key part of her current role is to encourage non-indigenous Taiwanese to also take up the fight for indigenous rights.
Moreover, indigenous groups themselves have some “homework” to do to have the organizational structures in place to take up opportunities that Tsai’s self-determination promises may offer, the legislator says.
“It is embarrassing for some people, but I have to be honest, our inner-conflict, we have to deal with that,” she says. “Now they open the door but how can we, indigenous people, get in?”
Taiwanese identity and the China factor
Discussion of indigenous rights, like many political conversations in Taiwan, eventually turns to China.
Ultimately, acknowledgment of the indigenous people and their historical claims – dating back thousands of years – serve to refute China’s claims of sovereignty over the island and is one of several pillars in the argument for Taiwanese independence.
“That is what I think. That is what I believe,” Legislator Kolas says.
With her strong indigenous and Taiwanese identity, Kolas, unlike many legislators or government bureaucrats, does not shy from the sensitive issue of cross-Strait relations. Since taking office, she has met with the Dalai Lama, lobbied for the United Nations to accept Taiwan and a recent press statement issued by her office included the line “China Stop Raping Taiwan” in the header.
“It is very natural for me to cut ties with China and be pro-Xinjiang, pro-Tibet, pro everything I want,” she says.
Across Taiwan, there are signs that the sustained efforts of recent years to revitalize indigenous cultural practices and languages are having an effect. A high school principal from Dulan, Taitung County, recently told The News Lens that the school’s curriculum includes Amis language classes and during holidays, additional cultural and history courses and events are taught. He said the Amis culture and its traditions are increasingly popular among students, and cultural identity among the youth is strengthening.
China, which typically refers to indigenous people as “minorities,” fears of the idea of Taiwan embracing its indigenous identity, Kolas says.
“They hate us talking about indigenous identity – in my own experience, as a journalist or a politician – because it means that Taiwan was never connected to China from our blood, and culturally and historically,” she says. “I think indigenous identity is the thing that China is most afraid of.”
The legislator says she has met with the president in recent weeks to discuss indigenous issues. She notes that while the president – whose paternal grandmother was from the Paiwan tribe – has so far made the right gestures, support will be needed from across the administration.
“I think inside her heart she is very pro-Taiwan identity,” Kolas says of Tsai. “You can tell she cares about indigenous issues more than other former presidents, but we hope that her staff members have the same ideas, have the same heart, as Tsai.”
Still, she is wary that at the national level, indigenous rights were politicized in the past, and subsequently the cause itself forgotten. Under former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and modern Taiwan’s first non-KMT government, a number of indigenous rights laws were enacted, though, as Tsai noted in her apology speech, only little weight was given to them.
“People, especially leftist DPP people, they use indigenous identity to claim Taiwan is a totally different country from China,” she says. “We push Tsai to face indigenous issues, not just to use us.”
Tsai is expected to make an announcement about the next steps for indigenous self-determination in the upcoming legislative session, which starts next month. As new legislation providing for self-determination moves into the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, Kolas expects to have her work cut out: giving greater autonomy to indigenous people will likely inherently mean the current decision makers have to relinquish some of their power.
“It needs time; to let people accept indigenous rights,” she says. “To communicate with people, with non-indigenous people, that is important.”
And if people from her own party do not support her? Kolas has already discussed that possibility with the DPP top brass.
“I don’t know when that will happen. It hasn’t happened yet. But I will stand with my people,” she says. “They know that.”
Editor: Olivia Yang