Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: UN succor for Taiwan's Aborigines

In recent months there have been enough reports and commentaries on Taiwan's attempts to enter the UN to test the patience of a saint.

This should surprise no one because this is, in effect, election time and UN entry is a valuable object with which the government and the opposition can beat each other -- and Washington -- over the head to express superior patriotic credentials.

Normally the UN is portrayed in the Taiwanese media as an organization that is worth joining because of the benefits membership brings, though in Taiwan's case membership would be benefit enough. Even so, government departments frequently cite UN standards and policies as things to emulate because this is thought to lend their activities credibility.

However, when the UN does something that is disruptive to the comfort zones of Taiwanese politicians and bureaucrats, the tone changes.

Such is the case with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is making no headlines locally, even if the consequences for Taiwan's Aborigines are potentially far-reaching.

The declaration, a tortuously long 20 years in the making, was approved by a wide majority of the UN General Assembly on Thursday.

Local Aboriginal activists now have new, concrete benchmarks against which they can judge and, as is often necessary, embarrass the government.

Health is one key area. Levels of tuberculosis in Aboriginal communities remain unacceptably high.

But even more important for Aboriginal people is the issue of self-determination -- including special access to land, resources and cultural property -- which has long been a thorn in the side of governments terrified at the prospect of ceding power and property to ethnic minorities.

Around half of Taiwan's land mass consists of townships that are dominantly -- if sparsely -- populated by Aboriginal people. The UN's latest declaration should give impetus to activists to refocus on what is important: improving living standards of communities through control over local affairs.

It may also energize others to focus on Aboriginal problems that are not of their own making, starting with those caused by government agencies themselves, particularly the Forestry Bureau, national park administrations and Taipower, which retains a nuclear waste dump on Lanyu (蘭嶼).

Aboriginal affairs in Taiwan are notable not for a tendency to conflict, ugly publicity and entrenched racism but for superficiality in media coverage and indifference in the executive. Aboriginal social problems are substantial but rarely addressed without considerable efforts at securing publicity by a dwindling group of skilled activists.

There is a case to argue that much of the stupor that defines Aboriginal activism today is a function of the co-opting of latter-day activists by the executive.

This is worsened by Aboriginal legislators, most of whose productive activities are compromised by a culture of patronage and vote-buying, a problem that has given "democracy" a bad name among indigenous people.

And despite reforms, it appears these legislators will not be held singularly accountable to their electorates: The downsizing process did not change their geographical and voting structures, unlike for their Han compatriots.

The UN declaration may put a new spotlight on all of these problems. And it is a spotlight that few officials will welcome, given that it has the potential to disrupt their administrative "status quo."

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