As the founder and executive director of an NGO established in 2001 to develop international exchange and cooperation for Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, I watched with great interest the groundbreaking Presidential apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples on August 1, 2016. We produced an English-language TV program to capture the hopes and expectations and concerns of indigenous leaders, activists, and academics. There was considerable interest in the apology by the international academic community and media outlets, and it was hailed by indigenous peoples around the world.

In Taiwan, of course, there were justified reservations and doubts based on past experiences. Yet, there was also renewed hope and excitement, for the gesture was unprecedented in Taiwan, and it was very rare in the world for a government to promise reconciliation for its indigenous peoples.

Now, over seven months later, disagreements over key issues have divided indigenous groups, the government and committee members developing transitional justice policies. In contention are the return of traditional indigenous lands, and the inclusion of the pingpuzu (plains peoples), which have had their distinct languages and cultures diluted a long time ago.

On February 14, the Council For Indigenous Peoples (CIP) announced the Regulations for Delimiting Indigenous and Tribal Land. Activists have taken to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction over the exclusion of private lands from the regulations. Indicating a loss of patience and faith in the process, some indigenous leaders have taken unilateral measures to take the issues into their own hands.

Reconciliation Must Not Unravel 

As the tensions rise, and disagreements continue to be unresolved, there is a sense that the reconciliation process has a chance of unraveling. In my view, it would be a tragic loss for all indigenous people and for all of Taiwanese society. I firmly believe that the hopes and promises of the President’s apology need a fair chance to be realized, for the greater benefit of future generations.

Most indigenous people can agree that this process of reconciliation is monumental, but many non-indigenous Taiwanese can’t see much importance in it. There seemed to be much more favorable, heartfelt reaction to the apology from the international community than from the Taiwanese. Hopefully, when all sides can agree to the importance of reconciliation, there will be more willingness to listen and compromise.

To ensure the success of this opportunity, we should look to past transitional justice efforts around the world. Previous landmark agreements restoring justice required the willingness of parties to listen to other views and to make great sacrifices. Having opposing views and resistance is an expected part of the process. It is understandable that those who were asked to take responsibility for past wrongdoings have always had a great interest in seeing transitional justice efforts fail. Thus, they have used all tools at their disposal to encourage divisions and distrust.

Historically, successful reconciliation has required great patience and focus on something larger than individual desires in order to be willing to put aside differences. I believe that there is a lack of true understanding of the value that the reconciliation and restoration of land, rights and autonomy provides for all of Taiwan.

What it looks like from an outside view is that individuals are struggling to secure their claims to bones and scraps of meat at the table, when in reality, there is a bountiful harvest available to everyone, if they learn to put aside their fears, distrust, and self-interests and learn to work together. I can understand the difficulties, because of the past abuses in Taiwan, government bureaucracy, and the mentality of insecurity, fear and scarcity.

Look Outside and to the Future 

As a citizen with indigenous Taiwanese roots and American roots who has focused for many years on building bridges for international indigenous cooperation, I offer an outside perspective to help the opposing groups see how bountiful the harvest can be for all of Taiwan. If indigenous rights, land and autonomy can be restored, there are new pathways for Taiwan’s future that can open.

The people of Taiwan care about their economic opportunities and security. They may not fully realize that international cooperation and activities have long been a dependent factor for Taiwan’s economic opportunities and security. In recent decades, Taiwan’s international profile has been significantly reduced, and thus its economic energy and security has been weakened.

The opportunity that many fail to see is that its indigenous identity opens more doors to the international community. According to scholars and historians, long before the ROC or the Japanese government ruled the island of Taiwan, it was an important contributor to the global economy. Taiwan’s indigenous peoples traded rice, sugar, wood, deerskins, jade and other items with the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, Ming and Qing Dynasties, and other Austronesian nations.

According to scholars and historians, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are relatives of Austronesian peoples from the 40+ Austronesian nations that have over US$4.5 trillion in annual GDP. Restoring traditional cooperation and cultural exchange with Austronesian tribes can help strengthen Taiwan’s indigenous people’s fragile sense of cultural identity.

Even Taiwan’s current ANZTEC free trade agreement with New Zealand is partly based on Taiwan’s connection with New Zealand’s indigenous Maori peoples. So far, the agreement has been underutilized, but it is a framework that can be the cornerstone for future agreements with other Austronesian nations. These Austronesian nations, Native Americans nations and other indigenous groups are increasing their cultural and economic cooperation with each other.

Major obstacles stand in the way preventing Taiwan from freely participating in this increasing segment of economic activity. The indigenous people prefer to work with other indigenous people, and they have a traditional distrust of governments and multinational corporations. And, Taiwan’s indigenous people don’t have the autonomy and framework to make agreements directly with the other international indigenous groups. Thus, they are missing out on potentially billions of dollars in trade and tourism.

The Native Americans and indigenous groups of other nations have autonomy in their countries, which give them protected power to make treaties and agreements with other autonomous tribes. The United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides an international framework to protect these rights. At least one Native American tribe has exercised their autonomous rights to make a free trade agreement (FTA) with another country and more are sure to follow.

With Taiwan’s government working on the process of restoring land, rights and autonomy, I would hope they follow the UN Declaration as a framework, so that Taiwan’s indigenous groups will have the ability to work compatibly with the autonomous indigenous nations of the world. Leaders in Taiwan should refer to to international legal experts who have experience in working on indigenous reconciliation efforts in other countries. They can offer great advice on how to resolve the differences of multiple parties.

Imagine if individual tribes have the right to make international agreements with the indigenous tribes of the United States, Hawaii, and other nations. Perhaps in the multi-cultural island of Taiwan, its indigenous peoples can find the pride, courage and support to lead the way towards a plentiful future, just as they did in the past.

(Feature photo from August 1, by the Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan) Government Website Open Information Announcement, CC BY 2.0)


Tony Coolidge

Tony Coolidge is the founder of ATAYAL, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting the indigenous peoples of Taiwan and beyond. Tony and ATAYAL produced Voices in the Clouds, a documentary about Tony's search for his Atayal aboriginal roots in Wulai, Taiwan, and hold an annual exchange program bringing Maori students from New Zealand to Taiwan. He is based in Tainan, Taiwan.