The first attempt at returning traditional territories to the nation’s Aborigines has already hit a snag, which shows that even if approved by the government, there is still much to be done in terms of policy implementation to prevent the issue from turning into a point of racial contention between Aborigines and ethnic Chinese.
In June last year, the Council of Indigenous Peoples announced the traditional territories of the Atayal in New Taipei City’s Wulai District (烏來) and the Thao in Nantou County. Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act (原住民族基本法) states that any land development project on traditional Aboriginal land must obtain the consent of the local Aboriginal community.
However, fearing that the Thao community would block a planned resort and other development projects, the Nantou County Government, the Yuchih Township (魚池) office and land developers filed an administrative appeal against the council’s decision. The Executive Yuan on Friday granted the appeal.
The office of Yuchih Township, which includes more than 8,000 hectares of Thao traditional territory, said it objected because the Thao only number in the hundreds, most of whom live in one village, and the territory was not proportionate to their current population. This is where this kind of topic gets hairy, and warrants further discussion and communication between the groups.
It is ironic that the Thao’s small population is used as grounds for objection — because it is centuries of ethnic Chinese and Japanese oppression that has led to the Thao’s state today as they cling to what is left of their culture. In a sense, the Thao have been unfortunate to occupy the valuable area surrounding Sun Moon Lake, which was eyed by Qing Dynasty settlers, the Japanese colonial government, and was and is still coveted by the Nantou County Government for tourism purposes.
The Qing built a Chinese academy on the Thao’s sacred island to “civilize” the Aborigines, the Japanese colonizers flooded their land for a hydroelectric dam, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government forcefully assigned Thao villages’ landmarks pejorative names and the Nantou County Government tried to establish a failed Aboriginal cultural center on the land.
While the residents of Yuchih Township today should not have to pay for what their ancestors did, they should display some sensitivity to why the Thao’s population is so low today, especially since their livelihood today was built at the Thao’s historical expense.
Capitalizing on racial tensions will not get anything done. The council on Monday vowed to initiate procedures to reinstate the annulled territory, and things will just get messier if the two sides continue to clash. The local government is worried that the Thao would block development projects, but it is not helping its cause by further antagonizing the Aborigines.
Collaborating with the Thao community and considering their input on development projects can only benefit the area, as the nation desperately needs to move away from gimmicky, culturally insensitive tourism and focus on experiences that are tied to the local culture, especially Aboriginal culture, which has been gaining popularity with tourists.
The long-suffering Thao were not even recognized as a distinct group until 2001, and their cultural reawakening and reclamation of their identity are continuing, such as replacing a hated Chinese name of the local police office in October last year with a Thao name. How this saga develops bears watching, as it could serve as a reference for future issues regarding traditional territories.
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