by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: PNN

THE PLIGHT OF indigenous people in Taiwan continues, with the latest incident being the arrest of 56-year-old Bunun man Tama Talum, also known as Wang Guanglu. Talum was arrested for hunting with a shotgun to provide meat for his elderly mother, Cina, who is in her nineties. Talum has stated that his mother has poor health, that pork makes her sick, and that she is used to eating to meat from the mountains, hence his actions. Talum has not denied his actions, although he has maintained the innocence of his actions .

Talum claimed his legal right to hunt after arrest, but because Talum was not hunting as part of a religious  or cultural ceremony, Talum was sentenced by a Taitung district court to three and a half years in prison as well as a fine of 70,000 NTD. Talum’s appeal was turned down in late October and Talum is slated to start serving his term next week.

The Legal Aid Foundation has been among those organizations which have rallied in support of Talum, citing the unduly heavy sentence against Talum, the broader pattern of unjust applications of the Indigenous Basic Law, and the violation of international human rights conventions. Chen Cai-Yi of the Legal Aid Foundation stated, “the ruling of this case was even more serious than that of a murder case.”

A demonstration was held in Taipei on Monday in order to protest the ruling, of which Talum himself, a number of Bunun elders who came by bus, as well as a number of lawyers were present. The demonstration moved between the Ministry of Justice, Legislative Yuan, High Prosecutor’s Office, and Control Yuan, with a petition that called for Talum’s sentence at least be delayed. The petition was presented to Wang Jinpyng, who accepted the petition but stated that the Legislative Yuan has no capacity to intervene with the actions of the judiciary. The demonstration later continued to Freedom Plaza at night. A petition has also been started in support of Talum, which has over 2,000 signatures, including 90 indigenous people. An English-language petition is also being circulated.

PhotoCreditPNNTalum (center-left) and supporters. Photo credit: PNN

Though far from having become a cause célèbre, Talum’s case has aroused much sympathy. In particular, if Talum is jailed for the next three and a half years, there would be nobody to take care of his 94-year-old mother, never mind that Talum’s attempts to care for his mother were the cause of his arrest to begin with. Talum stated: “I am Bunun, I am human. I am a hunter, I am not guilty. I will continue to stay at home with Cina, my mother, until the last moment.  If the Republic of China government is going to take me away, I ask that my clansmen look after my mother, and not let her see this last act.”

As stated by demonstrators in support of Talum, the incident is more broadly reflective of the issues faced by Taiwanese indigenous people. As demonstrators put it, the law coming down against Talum is the law acting against the ways of life of indigenous peoples, given that hunting is part of traditional Bunun culture. Where hunting rights are concerned, Talum’s case is not even the only case of Indigenous hunters being arrested this year, with arrests of Puyuma and Truku in similar hunting incidents earlier this year as well. It goes to show how Taiwanese law acts against indigenous cultures and robs them of their dignity. Maybe, the poignantly human element of Talum’s story, given that his arrest was because of his attempting to take care of his mother, has led to attention being drawn to his case where similar cases are disregarded and receive little attention.

It would be that the plight of indigenous peoples is deep rooted and structural in nature, where Taiwan is concerned. In some sense, indigenous peoples are excluded several times over are in Taiwan. From the KMT, Taiwan is a quintessentially Han and quintessentially Chinese nation. As was raised by many indigenous activists, we saw this quite clear during last month’s Ma-Xi summit in Singapore, in which President Ma Ying-Jeou referred to Taiwanese as the Han “descendants of the Yellow Emperor,” never mind that this appellation would deny the existence of indigenous peoples in Taiwan.

On the other hand, though it is easy to criticize the KMT for denying the place of indigenous people in their vision of the ROC, DPP and pan-Green activists emphatic on a Taiwanese sense of identity often play up that benshengren—the 90% of so-called “native” Taiwanese who have been present on Taiwan for hundreds of years before the waishengren “mainlanders” and the KMT came to Taiwan—quite often have some ethnic descent from indigenous peoples. This would be a way of suggesting differences between a Taiwanese and Chinese identity on the level of genetics. Whether scientifically true or not, it would be the same impulse to emphasize differences between Taiwan and China which undergirds the attempt to emphasize lasting Japanese influence on Taiwan dating from the Japanese colonial period which still exists in the present.

But in truth, this claim to indigenous descent is merely a claim used for the sake of concretizing a benshengren Taiwanese sense of identity, which verges into ethno-nationalism. Very little attention is given to indigenous ways of life as they are threatened by ROC law—this regardless of whoever in power, DPP or KMT. We see this pattern of appropriation with the use of the apparently Amis term “naruwan,” as a tourist slogan at airports from 2004 onwards during the Chen Shui-Bian administration, never mind that most tourist guides would not know what “naruwan” meant except as a general form of greeting, nor know which group the term originated from. But the influx of tourism itself has been a threat to the ability of indigenous villages to maintain their ways of life, when indigenous villages became tourist spots.

The Chen administration saw other appropriations of Indigenous culture in this light, as we see with the spat of name-changes of China-centric place names in Taiwan to indigenous terms under his role. This was perhaps symbolic in some way of the plight of indigenous peoples where both Chinese and Taiwanese senses of identity have excluded them with the attempt to to deny their existence. This with the claim that Taiwan was unambiguously China under the KMT, followed by the appropriation of indigenous culture merely for the sake of benshengren ethno-nationalism by the DPP—without any actual regard paid to the ways of life of indigenous people as it runs up against Han dominance, as we see with the Talum case and others. Actually, if Talum’s arrest has provoked outrage, the questions raised by his arrest are especially salient given the probable transition of presidential power from DPP to KMT which is about to occur in Taiwan.

It remains that, as with indigenous people elsewhere in the world, rates of suicide among indigenous people and violence against indigenous women are disproportionately high in Taiwan. If there is a broader phenomenon of where indigenous ways of life runs up against ROC law, it may be that the exclusion of indigenous peoples is written in the fabric of Taiwanese law.

But here what is at stake is not only questions of personal identity, but longstanding questions of dignity and human rights for indigenous peoples. If behind the Talum case are such larger questions, more will need done not just in regards to not only addressing the plight of Tama Talum, but also going beyond it to deeper structural causes. And now may be the time to be asking such questions.

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