When Tsai Ing-wen, the first female president of the Taiwan, was sworn into office on May 19, the indigenous people of the island nation had great expectations. Tsai’s own paternal grandmother is of Paiwan aboriginal descent, and at her inauguration in May, Tsai promised to pay more attention to the plight of the island’s native peoples, Cindy-Sui at the BBC reports. Now, she’s beginning to fulfill her promise by issuing the first apology to Taiwan’s indigenous population in the country’s history.
Like many other native populations around the world, over the past 400 years Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have been attacked; their land has been stripped from them; and they have been politically marginalized by the majority Han Chinese culture. Today, of the country’s 23 million inhabitants, about 2 percent or 540,000 belong to 16 formally recognized indigenous cultures. About 70 percent of indigenous people belong to the Amis, Atayal or Paiwan ethnic groups, Austin Ramzy reports for The New York Times.
During a ceremony in Taipei, Tsai addressed native leaders, offering a formal government apology for centuries of oppression, saying:
“To all indigenous peoples of Taiwan: On behalf of the government, I express to you our deepest apology. For the four centuries of pain and mistreatment you have endured, I apologize to you on behalf of the government…These first inhabitants lived their lives and had their own languages, cultures, customs, and domains. But then, without their consent, another group of people arrived on these shores, and in the course of history, took everything from the first inhabitants who, on the land they have known most intimately, became displaced, foreign, non-mainstream, and marginalized…
The success of one ethnic people can[not] be built on the suffering of another. Unless we deny that we are a country of justice, we must face up to this history. We must tell the truth. And then, most importantly, the government must genuinely reflect on this past. This is why I stand here today.”
Tsai also announced that she has begun a commission to look at the issues facing indigenous groups and that she will try to push through a law guaranteeing basic rights for native people through the legislature, Ramzy reports. The government will also compensate the Yami people, a community of about 3,000 who live on Orchid Island, where Taiwan has stored its nuclear waste for decades.
While no one questions Tsai’s sincerity about helping native peoples, Anthony Kuhn at NPR points out that there may be an ulterior motive. The Democratic Progressive Party, of which Tsai is a prominent member, wants to declare formal independence from mainland China. The government in Beijing insists that the island is a self-governing province of the nation. Kuhn says that by focusing on the native population and raising the profile of indigenous communities, the Taiwanese are attempting to build a cultural identity distinct from the mainland, giving them more of a claim to independence.