Taiwan has a unique opportunity to be a regional leader on Aboriginal issues and to serve as an ambassador for various Aboriginal communities throughout East and Southeast Asia.
When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) at her inauguration last year apologized to Aborigines, there was hope that Tsai, whose grandmother was Paiwan, would address Aboriginal issues that have long been neglected. This was the stated purpose of the Presidential Office’s Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Commission formed by the new government.
However, one year on it appears there has been little real progress on the two main issues that most concern Aborigines: hunting and land rights. In May, a court in Kaohsiung found two Paiwan men not guilty of killing three protected animals, but that the case made it to court at all and that people protested the court ruling show that misunderstanding and discrimination toward Aborigines still exist.
The main problem is that Aboriginal rights are superseded by the Wildlife Conservation Act (野生動物保育法) and other national laws.
Most recently Amis and other communities have been fighting the government over encroachment on their lands by developers who take advantage of the way private and public land is demarcated.
“If someone wants to build a hotel on our land, it is the county government that has to approve it, not the indigenous inhabitants,” Taiwan Indigenous Peoples’ Policies Association president Oto Micyang has said.
Campaigners are calling on the government to amend regulations to allow Aboriginal communities to classify land without government intervention. They have the support of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and New Power Party (NPP) caucuses.
“It is not enough for Tsai to apologize to Aborigines. What is crucial is whether the massive government bureaucracy takes proactive measures to restore Aboriginal rights, land and dignity based on her apology,” NPP Legislator Kawlo Iyun Pacidal said.
The government has made progress on some Aboriginal issues, such as the Aboriginal Language Development Act (原住民族語言發展法) passed in May that recognizes local languages in communities that have at least 1,500 Aborigines, but the real task of the committee should be to secure Aboriginal land and hunting rights. Self-determination in land use and cultural practice are the concerns of Aborigines everywhere who face frustrations in securing self-determination.
Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu, were forced off ancestral land in the 19th century and given land unsuitable for farming. They are protected by law, but still face discrimination and struggle for recognition of historical injustices.
The Philippines’ Aeta people, who live in the mountainous areas of Luzon, fight for land rights with the Tagalog majority, whose agricultural and urban development often encroaches on Aeta ancestral land.
In the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the Degar, also known as the Montagnard, have historically faced rape and genocide, and today regularly have their land stolen by the Kinh, or Vietnamese, majority. They are regularly arrested for practicing their religion, despite the protection of religious freedom guaranteed by the Vietnamese constitution.
The government has vowed to expand the economy through the New Southbound Policy that aims to bolster ties with Southeast Asian nations and India. This policy should also aim to promote the interests of the region’s Aborigines.
Taiwan is already a regional leader in terms of its democracy and is therefore best positioned to promote Aboriginal rights. The nation should establish an international forum to discuss Aboriginal issues, which would allow the nation to exhibit leadership and bolster its soft power. The nation could also explore economic development opportunities that empower Aboriginal communities.
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