The president has said sorry, again and again, for the violent oppression of Taiwan’s indigenous population, promised to address longstanding injustices, push through a bill of rights and return ancestral lands.

But it’s not enough for a group of indigenous protesters camped outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Ketagalan Boulevard, Taipei, since February 23.

Led by Panai Kusui and Nabu Husungan Istanda, who are married, folk singers and longtime rights campaigners, they claim President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is breaking her word to them.

“I can’t accept the apology and I feel betrayed. I don’t want to hear pretty words, I want to see deeds done,” Panai tells The News Lens, at the gradually expanding campsite in sight of the Presidential Office, packed with posters, banners and supporters, ringed by security fences and patrolled by police.

In a highly symbolic speech on Aug. 1, 2016, President Tsai acknowledged the fault of past governments for many grievances against Taiwan's indigenous people and laid out a roadmap to correct the wrongs of the past. This included the formation of an Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Commission, an improved Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, better education, healthcare and economic opportunities.

Graphic supplied by the Council of Indigenous Peoples showing the historical and proposed spread of Indigenous lands in Taiwan.

A legal center will be established to settle conflicts resulting from hunting rights, while issues such as the storage of nuclear waste on Orchid Island and monopolization of resources are addressed. Most significantly, perhaps, land will be returned in East Taiwan, where many indigenous groups live.

A map has been drawn up by the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) that shows how 400 years ago all of Taiwan belonged to indigenous groups. This territory was halved in the 17th and 18th centuries after Dutch and Spanish colonies encouraged Chinese migration. During Japanese rule from 1895, Indigenous people were slaughtered and had their lands taken away, a land grab that continued after China’s Kuomintang party established itself in 1945.

Under the CIP plan, indigenous groups will be given about 0.8 million acres of government land. However, it rules out the redistribution of another 1 million acres of private land, a total of 1.8 million acres that would constitute the area indigenous people owned before the Japanese invaded.

The protesters say they cannot accept half a promise when it comes to the return of their ancestral lands, further claiming CIP leaders are in league with the government and have betrayed them.


Photo: Jules Quartly

Nabu Husungan Istanda, of the Bunun tribe, says he will continue the protest against the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, `A day, a month, a year, forever.’

It is not a comfortable position for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Kolas Yotaka, a member of the East Coast Amis people. A campaigner for indigenous rights since she was a student, Kolas concedes, “When old friends call me a traitor, it hurts.”

“I have been fighting for land rights for decades. It’s my job as a legislator to get this land, but we must abide by the law. We should accept the law that gives us this land and deal with the private land ownership issue afterward,” Kolas says.

She knows Panai and Nabu and it clearly pains her when told of their anger and refusal to accept a compromise agreement. She patiently explains, with a series of typed handouts, the proportion of government land in indigenous areas is 89.4%.

She highlights articles from the Indigenous Peoples Law, which she is helping draft, that deal with land redevelopment, resource utilization and other issues. She underlines how “regulations delimiting the area of indigenous land” are subject to obtaining consent from indigenous peoples and compensation.

“About 98% of the people in Taiwan are not indigenous, so we need to face this fact,” Kolas says. The reality is that the situation is not the same as in the pre-Japanese era.

“We have to be fair to non-indigenous groups. We cannot act against the law or [the] constitution. Our goal is not to paint an imaginary map and claim this as the basis for legal right to our land. Anyone can do that, but it doesn’t help.”

Kolas says that compared to countries like New Zealand, where about 5% of the land is Maori land, Taiwan’s indigenous groups would have nearly 25%. She adds that her ultimate goal is autonomy for indigenous people.

DPP Legislator Kolas Yotaka.

All this fails to impress Nabu, who sits in his makeshift camp opposite the Ministry of Foreign affairs, sharing betel nut and talking to all-comers.

“First Nation people in other countries have far more rights and land and have had them for a long time,” Nabu says. “We have suffered long enough and all we are asking for is respect and the lands that were stolen from us to be given back. Transitional justice. I’m a warm and gentle person but now I have to stand up. I am not a criminal for doing this.”

Among the many supporters at the camp is Savungaz Valincian of the Indigenous Youth Front, who says: “After the area of the traditional territory is decided, under this regulation, it won’t be the property of Indigenous people, it only gives the right of consent and there are limits to what we can decide. We won’t have the final say over what will happen on our lands.”

Another supporter is Li Guo-sheng (李國盛), CEO of New Village Communication, who is ethnically Han. He says protesters see the new regulations as a retrograde step since previous CIP investigations ruled the Indigenous territory should be 1.8 million acres.

Asked why Panai feels betrayed, he says: “During Tsai’s election campaign, Panai was one of her strongest supporters in Indigenous and social activist circles. She had never supported a non-Indigenous politician before. That’s why she thinks what the government is doing is a slap in the face.”

As the one-month anniversary of the Ketagalan Boulevard protest nears, Nabu was asked how long it would continue. He smiles, spreads his arms and holds out his hands: “A day, a month, a year, forever. It’s up to them.”

Taiwan has a population of about 23.5 million, of whom 535,000 are Indigenous people from at least 16 groups or tribes. They are thought to have originally arrived in Taiwan as part of the Austronesian dispersal, at least 6,000 years ago.

Successive DPP leaders have identified indigeneity – “native or belonging naturally” – as a way of claiming a Taiwan identity distinct from China, thereby promoting independence.


Photo: Jules Quartly

Panai Kusui, whose parents are Puyuma and Amis, is leading a protest demanding the government returns all indigenous lands.

Read more:
My Party or My People? Indigenous Legislator on the Fight for Self-Determination in Taiwan

Editor: Edward White