by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

INDIGENOUS DEMONSTRATORS from the Indigenous Youth Front and other groups have occupied Ketagalan Boulevard for 22 days now. Demonstrators are demanding the return of traditional lands and more comprehensive action by the Tsai administration to realize transitional justice for indigenous in Taiwan.

In a high profile move, in her position as president of the ROC, Tsai Ing-Wen apologized to indigenous on behalf of the government in August of last year, claiming that she would steer her administration towards redressing the historical wrongs against indigenous. This apology saw demonstrations from indigenous groups who pointed towards the need for more concrete steps taken by the government than simply an official apology. And six months after the apology, indigenous groups remain critical of the Tsai administration’s failure to follow up on its promises.

Indigenous demonstrators on 228. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

The main issue which is being demonstrated is the Tsai administration’s exclusion of privately own property from what was designated as indigenous land in the draft proposal which was put out by the Council of Indigenous Peoples. It was one of the promises of the Tsai administration that it would restore traditional lands to Taiwanese indigenous. As a result, while indigenous territories have increased from zero to 800,000 hectares, indigenous themselves estimate that their land should consist of 1.8 million hectares. Indigenous groups have criticized that indigenous themselves, who should know the range and extent of their traditional territories best, were generally not consulted in the process of surveying traditional lands.

Given the high aims of the current occupation, it will be an uphill struggle for indigenous to inveigh upon the Tsai administration. Although Tsai later responded to an earlier occupation on Ketagalan Boulevard after her official apology to indigenous with a personal visit to the campsite, the Tsai administration has not responded to the current occupation, and has seen fit to largely ignore it. Among present demonstrators are indigenous community leaders who had previously participated in the Tsai administration’s inauguration ceremony, such as the indigenous singer-songwriter Panay. Likewise, the demonstration has largely been ignored by mainstream media in Taiwan, much less international media.

Indigenous demonstrators on March 5th. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Previous actions included a demonstration of approximately 200 on March 5th, as well as coordinated protests with 228 commemoration events on February 28th and the anti-nuclear demonstration which took place on March 11th. Indigenous groups have called for indigenous transitional justice as a necessary part of transitional justice for all ethnic groups in Taiwan. However, they draw attention to the fact that the Tsai administration has devoted substantial resources to settling transitional justice for the 228 Massacre. On the other hand, the task force created by Tsai Ing-Wen to realize transitional justice for indigenous is primarily a research body into past crimes committed against indigenous rather than a body with the power to carry out action. Even then, this task force has no budget, and no permanently appointed members. It may be that Tsai’s apology to indigenous may have just been for show, primarily done as a way of differentiating Taiwan from China.

Moreover, as pointing to the systematic nature of the problem, while legal protections should exist for indigenous, legal bodies for implementing them such as the Council For the Implementation of the Indigenous People’s Basic Law only meets three times a year. This raises large questions about the Taiwanese government’s commitment to the Indigenous Peoples’ Basic Laws.

Press conference held on March 14th, shortly before a march to the Forestry Department. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Indigenous groups have emphasized the importance of their traditional lands in regards to maintaining their traditional lifestyles and cultures. Hunting is an important part of indigenous culture, for example, but law enforcement has at times arrested indigenous hunters for violating the law when indigenous should in fact have the right to hunt as part of the legal protections for indigenous culture. Indeed, hunting is sometimes also necessary to simply eat on indigenous traditional lands, seeing as 7/11s or FamilyMarts are not to be found on mountains. The most high profile arrest of an indigenous hunter in recent memory was no doubt the Tama Talum case, in which an indigenous hunter was sentenced to jail while hunting to feed his elderly mother.

Sometimes this is framed by the government as a conflict between environmental protection or endangered species conservation laws and indigenous lifestyles. Or that large-scale planning by the government is necessary for Taiwan’s economic development, seeing as indigenous lands sometimes contain key natural resources. But indigenous themselves point to the failure of government policy on stopping environmental damage to their lands because government policy is too often formulated from afar. By contrast, indigenous groups have emphasized that they spend much time surveying their lands yearly in order to observe the state of nature. As such, indigenous themselves should know the lands they live on best, and their traditional knowledge of the land allows them safeguard natural resources and stock—obviously it is in the interest of indigenous to make sure that the environmental conditions of their traditional lands is safeguarded.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Yet government agencies such as the Forestry Bureau, national parks, and other institutions have failed to consult with indigenous communities. Not only does this fail to draw on the detailed knowledge indigenous communities have about their land, but is this is a continued violation of the sovereign rights of indigenous over their lands, and their rights to self-government as drawn up in the Indigenous Basic Law and other legal provisions.

In general, it remains that indigenous face disproportionate rates of disease, drop-out, alcoholism, and suicide compared to other ethnic groups in Taiwan. As such, the issue of traditional land is also only one part of the bigger picture in regards to the injustices against indigenous have faced in Taiwan over the hundreds of years of colonialism they have experienced.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

And while some have argued that indigenous groups should just be happy with the Tsai administration’s apology, drop current protests about traditional lands, and accept the apology for the sake of ethnic unity in Taiwan, the failure of the Tsai administration to follow up on many of its promises and its lack of a comprehensive plan to rectify the historical wrongs indigenous continue to face even today would simply mark her apology as hollow words—not at all a maximalist claim. Because while some action by the Tsai administration to date is better than nothing, in consideration of the actual processes by which the Tsai administration has moved to change government treatment of indigenous in the six months since her apology, we can see that too little has changed, too slow. With regard to this, the issue of traditional lands is merely the tip of the iceberg.