On behalf of the Government of Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen today issued a formal apology to the country’s indigenous peoples in a ceremony at the Presidential Office in Taipei. Taiwan is home to about 550,000 indigenous peoples (~2.3% of Taiwan’s population), who research suggests started living on the island about 8,000 years before the Sino-Tibetan Han migration began in the 17th century. They are Austronesian peoples. Much like indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, these native peoples became victims of forced land acquisition, mass murder (some may say genocide), forced cultural assimilation and acculturation, and culture, language, and identity lost when different colonizing powers and populations started arriving on the island. Today, they face economic and social barriers, including a high unemployment rate and substandard education.
In Tsai’s speech, she recounted and apologized for the atrocious treatment indigenous peoples received under different regimes ruling Taiwan, and announced the establishment of a indigenous peoples historical transitional justice commission, which she will chair as the head of state. She also laid out plans for the government’s reconciliation policies, including plans to establish each tribe as public entities and to return ancestral lands to the tribes.
Currently 16 tribes are recognized by the Taiwanese government, and many more are seeking recognition. The indigenous peoples speak Formosan languages. It has been suggested that the migration and dispersion of Austronesian peoples first started in Taiwan and eventually spread throughout the south Pacific and Indian Oceans. President Tsai is 25% Paiwan through her paternal grandmother and is know in the Paiwan language as Tjuku (meaning “chief’s daughter”).
Some indigenous members consider the apology as an empty gesture, while others express their dissatisfaction of being refuted entrance to the ceremony for wearing traditional knives, and that the ceremony is being held in the Presidential Office, a building that many consider as a symbol of Taiwan’s colonial history. While I think this is a right step towards justice for the indigenous peoples, we will have to wait and see if the President’s plan will actually yield what she calls a “reconciled country” with diversity and equal opportunity for all.