Taiwan's indigenous rights: enough?

Dwindling aboriginal groups enjoy many legal protections, but assimilation remains a looming threat.

Homeland: Sun Moon Lake, home to Taiwan's aboriginal Thao group, is an increasingly popular tourist destination.

As performers sing traditional songs at a nearby lakeside stage, Rungquan Lhkatafatu describes his tribe's fight to survive.

Only some 600-strong, the Thao are Taiwan's smallest recognized aboriginal group. Half of the tribe clings to its homeland on the shores of Sun Moon Lake, a popular tourist destination. The others are scattered throughout the island.

Thao leaders want to preserve traditional ways. But the group's identity is fading. Only about 20 people speak the Thao language, for example, and most of them are elderly.

"We're in a race against time," says Mr. Lhkatafatu, a representative of the Thao in Taiwan's Cabinet-level Council of Indigenous Peoples. "We must run faster, or else our culture cannot recover."

The Thaos' story is one of globalization: one tribe's attempt to maintain its distinct cultural identity against the powerful tides of modernization, encroaching development, and homogenization. Their situation also illustrates some government efforts to protect indigenous rights.

Like many of their indigenous counterparts worldwide, Taiwan's Aborigines – 2 percent of the island's 23 million population – are being absorbed by the majority. Meanwhile, Taiwan is itself more open than ever to the flattening forces of global culture.

For centuries the Thao lived on the southern shore of Sun Moon Lake. Successive periods of settlement sent shock waves through their culture: increased Han Chinese immigration during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Japanese colonization (1895-1945), and the Kuomintang's (KMT) arrival from China in the late 1940s.

Chinese settlers brought diseases that wiped out some of the Thao. The Japanese flooded the Thao homeland when they dammed up Sun Moon Lake to power a hydroelectric plant. They relocated the tribe to what is now Ita Thao village and brought more ethnic Chinese to the lake as laborers. Later, the KMT brought another Chinese influx as they developed the lake into a tourist spot.

The Thao's numbers dwindled from as many as 2,000 during the Qing era, to 900 in the 1940s, to today's 600.

Now, the lake area is set to see even more tourists, an influx that could further relegate the Thao to a cultural sideshow. Taiwan's new, more China-friendly government has promised a deal by early July to allow more visits by mainland tourists, for whom Sun Moon Lake is high on the "must-see" list. Like indigenous groups in many countries, Taiwan's aboriginal culture has been packaged and sold to tourists in theme parks and colorful song-and-dance shows.

One observer says he doubts whether the Thao could survive in any meaningful sense for much more than a decade. "In remote areas, you can preserve your tribe and homeland and keep some distance from the Han people. But they [the Thao] don't have an isolated residential area," says Shih Cheng-feng, dean of the College of Indigenous Studies at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien. "I think the Thao are going to disappear soon."

Absorption through intermarriage may be the biggest threat. Lhkatafatu guesses that only 20 to 60 percent of the tribe are full-blooded Thao; the rest have intermarried with Han Chinese and non-Thao Aborigines.

But the picture for the Thao isn't entirely bleak. Since taking power in 2000, Taiwan's pro-independence government has granted aboriginal groups more autonomy. In 2001 it recognized the Thao as a distinct aboriginal group. This March, the government agreed to grant the tribe the title to 165 hectares beside Sun Moon Lake, with 1,700 hectares to be comanaged by the Thao and the government.

In 2005, the government passed a law to protect aboriginal rights. It also established an aboriginal TV station, which broadcasts in tribal tongues to promote aboriginal languages and cultures. This was part of a campaign to move Taiwan away from the KMT's past "greater China" indoctrination and toward a more inclusive, multicultural Taiwanese identity.

Now, some Thao fear that the more China-friendly KMT government, which will return to power on May 20, could back away from commitments on aboriginal rights. "I'm very worried," says Lhkatafatu. "We're only 600 people, and we have to face many realities."

Compared with other countries, experts say Taiwan has a mixed record on aboriginal rights. On political rights it's fairly progressive: In addition to its Council of Indigenous Peoples, Taiwan reserves six of its 113 legislative seats for Aborigines. But Professor Shih says Taiwan lags behind the US, Canada, and New Zealand on economic welfare and status.

Christian Erni, the Thailand-based Asia program advisor for the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, adds that Taiwan trails behind the Philippines in legal protection for its Aborigines. But it's made more progress than other Asian nations like Thailand, which has no law to protect what it calls its "hill tribes."

He says groups like the Thao are especially vulnerable. "In 10 years, they will still be there physically, but perhaps not as a people with their own identity and culture," says Mr. Erni. "Once it reaches the point where they're so assimilated that they don't see themselves as different anymore, they basically disappear."

Chatting at a restaurant in Ita Thao village in a New York Yankees baseball cap, Panu Kapamumu, chairman of the Thao Culture Development/Community Association, admits that the Thao face long odds.

But he insisted they will fight on. "We want to keep control of our traditional culture – dancing, music, ceremonies, our territory, and language. That's our soul."

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