How Taiwan’s east-coast counties of Hualien and Taitung can be developed while upholding environmental justice and respecting local culture has long been a point of concern.
The Statute for Development of the Hualien and Taitung Regions (花東地區發展條例), which was enacted last year, along with the electrification of railways in Hualien and Taitung, which will be finished next year, will make the lives of people living in the area easier and bring them many economic opportunities.
However, there are many omissions in the legislation that have residents of the two counties waiting in trepidation. The proposed transfer of the public cemetery of Jhihben Village (知本) in Taitung County’s Beinan Township (卑南) is a very good — or actually a very bad — example.
Jhihben’s railway station has been rebuilt to accommodate the rail network electrification project, and the local authorities have started work on beautifying the local environment — giving it a “facelift.”
When Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule, the Japanese authorities attempted to abolish the Puyuma Aborigines’ custom of house burial, compelling residents of Jhihben to bury the deceased in the present-day public cemetery.
However, in 2010, to accommodate the area’s developing tourism industry, the township office quietly issued an order changing the usage category of the land occupied by the cemetery, telling Jhihben villagers to transfer their ancestors’ remains to a pagoda in Taitung City. This has been met with a series of protests from residents.
The problem is, before the Republic of China took over administration of Taiwan from the Japanese in 1945, the deceased were buried in the cemetery in multiple graves, and Aborigines were not accustomed to marking the graves with gravestones. Consequently, the Jhihben cemetery contains countless unmarked graves. Now the township office wants to clear out all these unmarked graves so that it can put the land out to tender.
A decade ago, I conducted an anthropological field study among Aborigines in Jhihben, so I can appreciate how important the belief in ancestral spirits is to Puyuma people.
Later on, I went to Palau to do research for my doctoral thesis. Palau was also ruled by the Japanese for a period during World War II. Like Taiwan’s Aborigines, the Palauans are part of the Austronesian-speaking family of peoples. Originally, their custom was to bury family members under stone platforms in front of their houses. On these platforms, they did everyday things like cooking and resting.
Unlike Han people, Austronesians do not fear the dead. They regard those who have passed away as still being part of the family and believe that the deceased need to be together with their living relatives so that they will not feel lonely.
Under Japanese rule the Palauans were compelled to transfer the remains of the dead to public cemeteries. However, after Palau gained independence, its rulers were Palauan, so they understood the attachment that Palauans felt toward departed family members. Accordingly, they lifted the ban on house burials, and many Palauans reburied their relatives under the stone platforms in front of their houses. The only difference is that these days they set up gravestones with the names of the dead carved on them.
Seeing the Taitung government authorities’ demands for people in Jhihben to move their ancestors’ graves, I cannot help but feel that it is a repeat of the colonial oppression of the past. Taiwan’s government often says that it respects pluralistic cultures, but do we have to wait until Aboriginal autonomy is instituted to see this slogan put into effect?