In a first, Taiwan apologises to its indigenous folk for centuries of injustice

  • AFP, Agency, Taipei
  • Updated: Aug 01, 2016 14:45 IST
Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen (L) posing with 80-year-old indigenous Yami leader Capen Nganaen during a ceremony at the Presidential Office building in Taipei. The president formally apologised to the indigenous people for their centuries of suffering on August 1, the country's first ever leader to do so. (AFP/Taiwanese Presidential Office)

Wearing a traditional dress from feather headdresses to loincloths, members of Taiwan’s indigenous community met President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday as she made a landmark apology for centuries of suffering including the loss of ancestral lands.

Tsai, the island’s first leader with aboriginal heritage, will personally head a committee to investigate past injustices as part of government efforts to ease tensions with the native community.

“I apologise to the indigenous people on behalf of the government, offering our deepest apology for the suffering and injustice you endured over the past 400 years,” she said in speech.

“We need to look at history seriously and speak the truth,” she said, adding that apologising was “another step forward”.

The indigenous community -- which makes up about two percent of Taiwan’s 23.5 million people -- have seen their traditional culture eroded since immigrants started arriving from China centuries ago.

Much of their land is now designated national park, leading to clashes over hunting, fishing and foraging in areas where permits are needed.

Representatives, dressed in traditional clothing, from some of Taiwan's 16 recognised indigenous tribes, attending a ceremony inside the Presidential Office building in Taipei. The indigenous community -- which makes up about two percent of Taiwan's 23.5 million people -- have seen their traditional culture eroded since immigrants started arriving from China centuries ago. (AFP/Taiwanese Presidential Office)

Aboriginals have also complained of developments on their ancestral land, which campaigners say make up two-thirds of the island, were approved without seeking their views.

Tsai pledged to increase the autonomy of aboriginal communities, restore their lost land rights and protect tribal languages.

But for dozens of aboriginals protesting outside the presidential office Monday morning, her promises were not enough.

“The apology was well said and very touching, but her proposals for action don’t meet our expectations,” said Mayaw Biho, an indigenous activist from the Amis tribe, who had camped out overnight.

Since coming to power in May, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has not made legislation promoting indigenous rights a priority in parliament, he said.

“It’s unfair. It’s not being taken seriously,” he said.

Deliver on Promises

Indigenous people remain a marginalised group in Taiwanese society, with wages about 40% below than the national average, as well as a higher rate of unemployment.

Tsai on Monday listed numerous wrongs done to the indigenous population, including storing nuclear waste on Yami tribe’s land on Orchid Island.

“We have been protesting for over 30 years,” said Capen Nganaen, an 80-year-old Yami representative wearing a loincloth, who spoke after Tsai.

“I hope Taiwan’s government and the president will truly deliver on the promises made in this apology,” he said.

Tsai and the DPP came to power after winning a landslide victory in January over the Kuomintang (KMT).

A member of Taiwan's indigenous population taking part in a ceremony in front of the Presidential Office building in Taipei. President Tsai Ing-wen is the country's first ever leader with aboriginal heritage. (AFP/Taiwanese Presidential Office)

The Indigenous Peoples Basic Law was adopted in 2005, during the DPP’s last reign, but critics say actions to amend relevant laws have stalled.

This means many aboriginals have been arrested or fined for “illegal” hunting or fishing, which is allowed in the basic law.

Earlier on Monday, tribe members who had been invited to Tsai’s speech burned millet stalks in front of the presidential office as part of a traditional ceremony welcoming the ancestral spirits to join them.

Tsai greeted the representatives from each of the island’s 16 recognised tribes, who were all wearing their traditional tribal clothing.

In a deviation from her usual plain blazers, Tsai wore a grey suit made by an indigenous designer, which featured a black butterfly pattern.

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