Thursday was Indigenous People’s Day, a day marked by a repetition of government pledges to protect the rights of Aborigines and to allow them more autonomy. It was, as it has been for many years, a day of empty promises.
The Republic of China Constitution was amended in 1994 to make Aug. 1 Indigenous People’s Day in recognition of the Austronesian inhabitants of Taiwan, a belated admission that the nation has a multiethnic population.
There have been many developments in the 19 years since then: In 1995 a law requiring Aborigines to adopt Chinese names was lifted, in 1996 the Council of Aboriginal Affairs was established (now the Indigenous People’s Council), the number of officially recognized Aboriginal tribes was increased from nine to 14, in 2001 mother-tongue education was made a compulsory subject for elementary schools, in 2002 the New Partnership Agreement was signed by then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and in 2005 the Aboriginal Basic Act (原住民基本法) was passed.
However, there have been just as many setbacks, most notably the failure by both the former Democratic Progressive Party and the current Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) governments to pass a long-promised Aboriginal autonomy act (原住民自治法). Aborigines, who make up about 2 percent of Taiwan’s population, remain among the poorest and most marginalized.
On Thursday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) again promised to change the law so that Aborigines will be able to organize autonomous communities and preserve traditional territories. He had made the same promise in February during a meeting of the KMT Central Standing Committee and on numerous other occasions since he was first elected in 2008 — on a campaign platform that included a pledge to promote Aboriginal autonomy.
Even the very flawed draft Aboriginal autonomy act, which has been roundly criticized by many Aborigines, only managed to get passed by the Executive Yuan in the fall of 2010 because the government was hoping it would boost KMT candidates’ chances in the special municipality elections at the end of that year.
The government claims that time restraints and the need for additional reviews have held up legislative passage of the act. However, the KMT has always held a legislative majority even after other political parties were legalized in 1987. If the KMT really wanted to enact such a law, it could have.
Over the past two decades the government has been more than happy to use Aboriginal music, dance and culture to promote Taiwan on the international stage and as a tourism draw — as opposed to pitches during the Chiang era that portrayed Taiwan as the guardian of true Chinese culture. Yet efforts by Aborigines to gain more of a say over the economies and resources of their villages continue to be blocked or ignored in the drive for national or county development.
After eight years, many of the legal and administrative reforms required by the Aboriginal Basic Act have yet to be made and, even when they are made, the central government will still regulate those rights.
A key barrier to the advancement of Aboriginal rights is the paternalistic and Han-centric viewpoint of the KMT government. Until that changes, promises will count for nothing.