Taiwan president issues historic apology to nation's aborigines

President Tsai Ing-wen offered a formal apology to Taiwan's aboriginal people on Monday for 400 years of 'pain and mistreatment.'

The president of Taiwan offered an unprecedented formal apology to its aboriginal peoples on Monday, vowing to make amends for 400 years of "pain and mistreatment."

"If we wish to declare ourselves as a country of one people, we need to face these historical facts," said President Tsai Ing-wen at a ceremony in Taipei, held on Taiwan's official aboriginal people's day. "We have to face the truth. Most importantly, the government must truly reflect on itself and that is why I'm standing here today."

A number of tribes inhabited Taiwan for thousands of years before the arrival of Chinese settlers in the 17th century. As correspondent Ralph Jennings previously reported for The Christian Science Monitor

Taiwan's indigenous people, also known as aborigines, trace their history as far back as 3,500 years when they made up part of an Austronesian diaspora ranging from Madagascar through Southeast Asia and across the South Pacific.

Today, aborigines make up 2 percent of the island’s 23 million people, the majority being Chinese who began populating the island about 400 years ago. And though they're assimilated more or less, they have held a lower status in mainstream life. Taiwan's majority sees indigenous people as poor, lacking skills and prone to become alcoholics.

Addressing representatives from the sixteen native tribes officially recognized by The Council of Indigenous Peoples, Ms. Tsai announced plans on Monday to establish a "justice and historical justice commission" in an attempt to rectify current and past injustices. In addition to establishing the commission, she vowed to push through a law outlining the basic rights of indigenous peoples. 

The apology was well-received by Capen Nganaen, an 80-year-old representative of the Yami tribe. 

"Taiwan has had many presidents during its history, but never before has one been willing to offer an apology to the indigenous peoples," he said during the ceremony, as reported by The New York Times. 

Mr. Capen also asked the president to look into removing nuclear waste from Orchid Island, the Yami’s homeland, which has been used as a depository for waste from Taiwan's power plants for the past 30 years, despite resistance from the tribe. Tsai said the government would provide compensation to the Yami before making any decisions about Orchid Island.

"Protests were held for 30 years," Capen said, as reported by the China Post. "It is the pain of the dwellers of Orchid Island, and it is something that we cannot solve (on our own)."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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