Taiwan president to apologize to Aboriginal people, promises law on autonomy

Indigenous people account for 2% of island's population, have historically suffered discriminatory policies from Taiwanese government

 Distribució dels pobles indígenes de Taiwan.
Distribució dels pobles indígenes de Taiwan.
Taiwan's Aboriginal dossier has remained unsolved for decades. But, is a new opportunity emerging with Tsai Ing-wen's presidency? Tsai has recently announced that a ceremony will be held on August 1 in which, on behalf of the government, she will apologize to indigenous peoples for the wrongs of past policies.

Tsai, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, liberal and Taiwanese pro-independence), further said that a commission of truth and reconciliation will be formed. In the framework of that policy, Tsai announced that the adoption of a law on the autonomy of indigenous peoples will be the top priority.

The law was already being drafted over the previous term, when the Kuomintang (KMT, conservative and Chinese nationalist) was the ruling party. But indigenous representatives then complained that the law gave them no real autonomy. In the end, the law was not even passed.

Several Aboriginal organizations welcomed Tsai's announcement. However, the proposal will likely be difficult to manage. Indigenous groups are asking for multi-million dollar financial compensations and the return of ancestral lands.

The latter is not a very popular claim within the larger Taiwanese society, whose 23 million members live in a densely populated island of little more than 36,000 square kilometers.

Aboriginals are one of Taiwan's communities who have traditionally been more likely to support the KMT than the DPP -the others are the Hakka, descendants from those arrived from China's Canton, and the so-called Chinese Mainlanders, the descendants of those arrived on the island from 1945 onwards. The DPP, conversely, has usually received more votes from the Hoklo -that is, descendants of those arrived from China's Fujian region since the 17th century.

Tsai, however, contradicts this general framework, as the DPP leader has Hakka and Aboriginal ancestry. The president advocates a Taiwanese identity more inclusive of other groups, not only based on majority Hoklo citizens.

Aboriginals historically marginalized

Aboriginal people make up a little more than 2% of the Taiwanese population. They are the descendants of the island's first settlers, and maintain the use of various Austronesian languages. They underwent a gradual process of marginalization as the Hoklo first and other Chinese groups later began to settle Taiwan.

Problems affecting them are similar to other indigenous communities around the world. Among these, dispossession of land, policies of marginalization, high unemployment rates, and official discrimination against their languages and cultures can be mentioned.