Last week, preacher Yohani Isqaqavut, an Aboriginal activist and former Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) minister, assumed office as Taiwan’s representative to Fiji, making him the country’s first Aboriginal ambassador.
Before departing for Fiji on May 3, Yohani gave an exclusive interview to the Taipei Times at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in Taipei.
“I was very surprised last year when I was first told, unofficially, that I would likely be the new representative to Fiji,” Yohani said.
“I’d actually heard the talk about the foreign ministry looking for an Aborigine to serve as representative to Fiji, but I didn’t think it would be me,” he said.
Although the news came as a surprise, it wasn’t an accident that the MOFA picked him for the job.
“We find Yohani to be an excellent candidate for the position,” ministry spokeswoman Phoebe Yeh (葉非比) told the Taipei Times at a separate venue.
“First of all, indigenous peoples in the South Pacific region share a similar cultural heritage. Being an Aborigine, Yohani is culturally more connected to the Fijians,” she said.
“Second, he has served as CIP minister, which means that he’s familiar with how government administration functions,” Yeh said. “And most importantly — Yohani has represented Taiwan’s Aborigines at many UN indigenous conferences, so he’s not unfamiliar with international affairs.”
After being unofficially informed that he was the preferred candidate, Yohani began to seriously consider whether to accept.
“I felt it’s a great responsibility, and I needed to think whether I could do the job well,” he said. “And accepting the responsibility would mean that I have to alter the path of my life — and I needed some time to think.”
Yohani has changed paths several times already.
Beginning his career as a preacher at the Presbyterian Church in a Bunun Aboriginal community in the mountains of Nantou County, his love for his people turned him into an Aboriginal rights activist in the 1980s and 1990s.
When the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency in 2000, Yohani was named the first CIP minister.
After stepping down from the position in 2002, Yohani resumed his church career in Nantou and remained active in Aboriginal affairs.
After months of thinking, Yohani decided to accept the assignment as representative to Fiji.
“I accepted the assignment because I felt that it’s time for Aborigines to take part in all areas of public affairs — not just Aboriginal affairs,” he said.
Yohani believes his Austronesian cultural background will give him an advantage in developing closer relationships with Fijian officials.
“There’s a trick that I always use to instantly boost relations with people from other Austronesian countries,” Yohani said.
“When I had dinner with the Fijian representative in Taiwan last week, I asked him to count from one to 10 in the indigenous Fijian language, and I counted from one to 10 in Bunun,” Yohani said with a big smile on his face. “And we found that we pronounce at least five numbers the same way, and instantly, a feeling of brotherhood arose.”
Yohani then recounted that once when he visited New Zealand and had dinner with Taiwan’s diplomats in the country, “two Maori ministers showed up and partied with us.”
“They told us that they usually wouldn’t attend events held by Taiwan’s diplomatic mission because of pressure from China, but they wanted to come that night because there were Taiwanese Aborigines and they felt there was a special tie between us,” Yohani said.