TAIPEI – Thousands of years before Portuguese sailors spotted the island of Taiwan and dubbed it “Ilha Formosa” for its vegetation and beauty in the 16th century, indigenous people already inhabited its plains and mountains.
That is the reason why, for decades, the Taipei regime considered them “shanbao,” meaning compatriots of the mountains, a name that was changed in the island’s constitution to “yuanzhumin,” or native inhabitants.
On Thursday, Taiwan celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of that constitutional recognition on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which falls on Aug. 1.
A series of concerts and exhibitions to commemorate the event will be held over the next few days along with a forum on the 10-year-long struggle by aboriginal movements to dignify the status of indigenous people in Taiwan although their grievances date back much longer.
Of Austronesian origin and largely Christians, indigenous people had to endure harassment and colonial efforts by the Dutch, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese with varying degrees of success at different stages of their history over the last four centuries.
This conflict is presented in an epic way in Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng’s movie “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” based on the 1930 Wushe Incident in which 300 Seediq people’s warriors revolted against the Japanese colonial administrators to defend their hunting grounds and pay tribute to the spirits of their ancestors.
Currently, the Taiwanese government officially recognizes 16 indigenous tribes in the country. Other groups, such as pingpu, are awaiting official proclamation of the status in the midst of a debate over the reluctance of some legislators to equate them with existing groups, according to the local media reports.
The current Taiwanese government has a conciliatory approach toward the indigenous people, who have been elected to six of the 113 seats of the country’s legislature.
In 2016, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen formally apologized to the indigenous people for the “pain and mistreatment, meted out to them for centuries.
Tsai, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, will also seek support for her re-election during the upcoming elections in 2020 from this sector, which accounts for 2.5 percent of the Taiwanese society, with just over 550,000 people, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior.
In her address at the opening ceremony of the aforementioned forum on Thursday, Tsai expressed her desire for indigenous people to become a shared memory of all Taiwanese people, not only to review history but also to look ahead to the future.
However, this is not solely a concern of the Taiwanese leader.
“Since the 1990s, the government has been aware of the importance of protecting aboriginal culture and working to help them preserve their customs, traditions, languages and culture,” the dean of Tamkang University’s Department of Diplomacy and International Affairs, Lucia Chen, tells EFE.
In 1996, Taiwan’s legislature approved the creation of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs, now known as the Council of Indigenous Peoples, to coordinate the issues of these groups at a ministerial level.
And in 2007, an Indigenous Peoples Cultural Foundation was set up, which runs the TITV television channel and Alian 96.3 radio station to raise awareness of different indigenous cultures.
But despite several efforts and progress made in protecting aboriginal rights and in positive discrimination policies, including education and housing aid, challenges remain.
These include the economic development of indigenous communities, the right to land, environmental protection of the spaces in which they live and their full integration as first-class citizens.