Typhoon Morakot did more than expose the incompetence and lack of leadership in President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration. It highlighted another salient issue: the plight of Taiwan’s Aborigines.
Like many indigenous peoples suffering the fate of colonialism, these people are pulled in opposite directions. Tugging on one side is the wish to maintain traditional lifestyles and identities; on the other are the demands of survival and dignity in a modern, fast-paced and high-tech society.
As a result, they are being marginalized to the point of extinction. Even if they do fit in, at best, they often face a life of second-class citizenship that teeters on the brink of welfare. If ever the Aboriginal community needed vision and leadership, it is now.
Where to find it? The sight of Aboriginal villages washed away and wiped out after Morakot was horrendous. Worse, however, is the realization that the causes of the problem were not limited to the typhoon. The devastation came as the result of lack of strong environmental policies and after mountainsides denuded of trees were unable to stop mudflows. Then there is the fact that decisions on deforestation were made by profiteers and forces outside the sphere of influence of the villagers.
Living in isolation on ancestral lands, Aborigines are often removed from the decision-making processes around them. Further, without pursuing pertinent related education and degrees that would help legitimize community members and businesses in influencing the government’s decision-making processes, they find their lives controlled from the outside.
The Aborigines do participate in Taiwan’s democratic mechanisms, but they have not learned to use their votes to their advantage. Like any minority, they must fit in.
But while certain affirmative action policies are in place for education and the like, their leadership has no grand plan for their people. Instead, for example, they are satisfied with “vote-buying handouts” and small gifts.
The Aboriginal vote has always favored the wealthy Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — like a dog begging for scraps. This, in effect, is selling a birthright for a mess of pottage.
As they pick up their scraps, the Aborigines have been unable to grasp the larger reality that the KMT is a Sino-centric party shaped by its hierarchical Confucian philosophy. Thus, no matter how pleasant or inflated the talk of the Han, the Aborigines will always rank as second-class citizens and/or Uncle Toms.
Further, Aborigines tend to ignore how they have been culturally denigrated and stereotyped as lazy and as drunkards with loose morals — by the very same hand that gives them a dole.
One way to counter this cultural stereotyping is to elect new leaders who are able to relate to and stress a Taiwanese identity for them. DNA research has demonstrated that 85 percent of Taiwanese have Aboriginal blood. By this, Aborigines are not a minority but part and parcel of the majority. They share a common heritage with most Taiwanese. Only one group, the waishengren — Mainlanders — is not one with them; yet it is those same waishengren who buy them off cheaply and look down on them.
In establishing a vision of fitting in, the Aborigines must realize that their best hope is in building a Taiwanese identity. It is only within the framework of this identity that they will be able to find and maintain true dignity and a competitive and cultural advantage.
Because of this, Ma is actually their worst enemy. He has repeatedly tried to emphasize the fabric of zhonghua minzu — Chinese ethnicity — with all of its hierarchical implications and baggage. Ma’s paternalism has already been demonstrated on numerous occasions by talking to Aborigines as if they were children.
The answer to Aboriginal problems will likewise not be found in legislators like Non-Partisan Solidarity Union Legislator May Chin (高金素梅), who receives money from Beijing, because Beijing operates within the same paternalistic, hierarchical paradigm. A simple look at the plight of the Tibetans and the Uighurs demonstrates the results of that hierarchy. Both groups have become aliens and suffer in their own lands.
If Aborigines think they will fare better because of temporary handouts from China, they are sadly mistaken. Morakot should be their wake-up call. Where have 50 years of handouts from the KMT gotten them?
Aborigines of all tribes must forge an alliance with Taiwan’s environmentalists — both in politics and in life. This is a natural alliance because all want to preserve and protect ancestral lands. Included in this must be the commitment of some Aborigines to long-term education in such matters, just as some must make a commitment to areas such as Austronesian studies.
Research points to how the vast Austronesian linguistic family across the Pacific and Indian oceans originated in Taiwan. This should spur Aborigines on to recapture their dignity and rightful place in the community. Pride in the past will never be found in an outmoded zhonghua minzu, but in an empire that they once built — and why it was lost.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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