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Bruce Jacobs is emeritus professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Routledge has just published Changing Taiwanese Identities, which he co-edited.
One year ago, on August 1, 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen, representing Taiwan’s government, made an important and unprecedented apology to the island’s indigenous people. Taiwan’s indigenous people have long suffered discrimination and prejudice under outside rule by the Dutch, the Spanish, the Zheng family of Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), the Manchus, the Japanese, and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.
In her speech, President Tsai apologized directly to Taiwan’s indigenous people for “the four centuries of pain and mistreatment you have endured” and she noted that, with the arrival of immigrants, Taiwan’s indigenous people “became displaced, foreign, non-mainstream and marginalized.” Although Taiwan’s indigenous people had lived in Taiwan “for thousands of years, with rich culture and wisdom … [f]or 400 years, every regime that has come to Taiwan has brutally violated the rights of indigenous people through armed invasion and land seizure.” Thus, “the fabric of traditional societies was torn apart, and the collective rights of people were not recognized.”
Clearly, President Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government that she leads have made progress on indigenous issues. However, there are also a number of areas where the promises that they made have yet to be fulfilled. The government’s performance appears best in the area of cultural education. The government passed the Aboriginal Language Development Act (原住民族語言發展法) on May 26 and it went into effect on June 14. This law makes all aboriginal languages official languages. Furthermore, the law works to increase the numbers of speakers for aboriginal languages, many of which have become endangered. In the area of cultural education, the government has also forced cable networks to broadcast Taiwan’s Indigenous TV network, which in recent years has increased the number of programs broadcast in aboriginal languages.
In the past, Taiwan’s indigenous people have been arrested for “traditional” hunting practices and for gathering fallen logs. President Tsai promised to improve legal coordination between different jurisdictions and the government argues that legal rulings have been issued, ensuring that Aborigines could practice traditional hunting, fishing and harvesting. Yet, apparently there are still conflicts between such laws as the Forestry Act (森林法) and the Indigenous People’s Basic Act (原住民族基本法), which continue to cause difficulties for Taiwan’s indigenous people and their way of life.
A key issue for the government and for the indigenous communities in Taiwan is the role of the Plains indigenous people, sometimes called the Pingpu (平埔) people. These indigenous people lived primarily on the coastal plains and had the most interaction with foreign invaders including the Dutch and the Chinese. Earlier governments and many indigenous people themselves believed the Plains indigenous people had assimilated as Chinese, but anthropological research demonstrates that this was not true.
On August 17, 2017, Taiwan’s Cabinet approved a draft bill to recognize “Plains” indigenous people as a third category in addition to the “Mountain” (山地) and “Lowland” (平地) indigenous people. Recognition of Plains indigenous people will boost Taiwan’s indigenous population by another 50 percent. Will the budget for Taiwan’s indigenous people also be raised 50 percent or will there be intensified competition for resources over a smaller per capita budget?
The authoritarian government of Chiang Ching-kuo secretly placed nuclear waste on Orchid Island where it caused substantial health problems for the local Tao (also known as Yami) people. The local Tao indigenous people have demanded the removal of the nuclear waste, but in her apology last year, President Tsai only promised to “direct relevant agencies to present an investigative report on the decision-making process of nuclear waste storage on Orchid Island.” She did promise “appropriate compensation,” but this does not help those who have died or become seriously ill. And, there is still no deadline for the removal of the waste. In this area, the government appears to have made little progress.
Like indigenous people around the world, Taiwan’s indigenous people are necessarily concerned with land rights. The Cabinet guidelines published on February 14 restrict so-called “traditional areas” to government-owned land and explicitly exclude private land. Thus, the recognized traditional territories have been reduced from 1.8 million hectares to only 800,000 hectares. Companies may develop privately-owned traditional aboriginal land without gaining the consent of the traditional indigenous owners.
Finally, Taiwan still demonstrates considerable racism and lack of respect for its indigenous people. Among Taiwan’s many TV stations, only Taiwan’s Indigenous TV broadcast President Tsai’s apology. The next day, even though there was no major domestic or international news, the Liberty Times, Taiwan’s largest newspaper, in terms of circulation, and a close supporter of the DPP government, did not carry news of the apology on its first page. Prominent politicians occasionally still use the Taiwanese word huan-a (番仔), which literally means “savage.” Taiwan’s indigenous communities continue to have lower life expectancy, poorer health, poorer education and poorer employment prospects than Taiwan’s non-indigenous immigrant population. Much work remains to be done before Taiwan achieves true equality between its indigenous and its immigrant communities.
The main point: With the arrival of the Dutch in 1624, Taiwan’s indigenous people suffered nearly four centuries of prejudice and discrimination. While some adjustments occurred in 1994-1996, a key change came with President Tsai’s apology to Taiwan’s indigenous people on August 1, 2016. An examination of progress one year later shows that in some areas Taiwan has improved the livelihood of Taiwan’s indigenous people, while in other areas little progress has been achieved.
 Melissa Brown, Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities (Berkeley: University of California Pres, 2004).
For background and analysis of President Tsai’s apology, see J. Bruce Jacobs, “Indigenous Reconciliation? The Case of Taiwan,” Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs 3, No. 2 (Spring 2017), pp. 31-36, available at: https://asianstudies.georgetown.edu/sites/asianstudies/files/documents/gjaa_3.2_jacobs.pdf.
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