The Roots of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples Protests

Written by Scott Simon.

President Tsai Ing-wen began her term on 20 May 2016, full of promise for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. In her inauguration address, she promised to pursue transitional justice, rebuild an indigenous historical perspective, promote indigenous autonomous governance, restore indigenous languages and cultures, and improve indigenous livelihoods. Just over two months later, on 1 August 2016 — Indigenous Peoples’ Day — she issued a formal apology at a ceremony with indigenous leaders at the presidential office. Tsai’s apology went further than those of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Whereas Rudd and Harper only apologized for mistaken policies of previous governments, Tsai atoned for 400 years of settler colonialism. Like her Australian and Canadian predecessors, she also announced the creation of new commission, the “Commission for Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice.” During the event, indigenous protestors outside the Presidential Office Building on Ketagalan Boulevard called for respect of indigenous hunting rights. There are more than 550,000 indigenous people on Taiwan, accounting for about 2.5 percent of Taiwan’s population of 23.5 million.

At the first meeting of the Commission on 30 March, Tsai made six points about indigenous territory and rights. The first was that the indigenous perspective about territory is based on “natural sovereignty” rather than property rights. Natural sovereignty implies that indigenous rights are based on occupation of land before the arrival of states; and that states must recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to traditional territory and self-government. Tsai’s declaration is thus entirely consistent with the spirit of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Taiwan’s own Basic Law on Indigenous Peoples. Not all indigenous people, however, are convinced of her government’s sincerity.

Land rights remain at the centre of the protests. On 14 February, the Council of Indigenous Peoples announced new regulations on the return of traditional territory to indigenous peoples. To the disappointment of indigenous activists, the guidelines restricted the application of “traditional territory” to state-owned land, excluding private property. On 23 February, filmmaker Mayaw Biho and singers Nabu Husungan Istanda and Panai Kusui, all of indigenous heritage, began a “sleepout” on Ketagalan Boulevard to protest. They argued that the new regulations amount to justifying a theft of the 1 million hectares of indigenous land (out of 1.8 hectares of indigenous lands on the East Coast) that have been designated as private property. Their protest site became a stable encampment, with informal concerts and public art. Indigenous people from around Taiwan painted rocks and left them at the site as a public sign of indigenous sovereignty.

General distribution of indigenous peoples in Taiwan. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

The government has not made life easy for the protestors. On May 2, the site was demolished and removed by police and garbage collectors, who swept up much of the artwork and stones. Protestors slowly returned, but were relocated to a nearby subway station on 3 June. The organizers were charged with violating the Assembly and Parade act, a relic of Taiwan’s martial law era that has long been denounced by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party. The protestors have transformed Exit 1 of the NTU Hospital MRT (subway) station into an indigenous classroom, with nightly lectures on various aspects of indigenous rights. They are trying to reach out to potential non-indigenous allies, using the slogan that “no-one is an outsider” (沒有人是局外人).

Environmental groups are willing to help the indigenous protestors on some issues. On 25 June, thousands of people took to the street to protest a 20-year extension of mining rights for Asia Cement to continue its activities on Truku traditional territory in Hsiulin Township, Hualien. Citizens of the Earth Taiwan gathered more than 210,000 signatures in an online petition against the extension, arguing that it had been given to the company without an environmental assessment or transparent mechanisms to obtain the free, prior, informed consent (FPIC) of the Truku people. Asia Cement leases the site of the quarry and factory from Truku-controlled Hsiulin Township, through mechanisms that the state has long labelled as “local self-government.”

Differences in land rights reveal some of the fault lines between indigenous groups. Ever since the 1950s, the government has classified the indigenous groups as either “mountain mountain compatriots” or “plains mountain compatriots.” This distinction is still maintained in the quota for indigenous legislators, as each legal category gets to elect three candidates to office. These legal categories also determine access to land. Only the mountain groups have access to reserve land, which remains government land, even as individuals can buy and sell usufruct, or shared usage, rights among indigenous people. The plains groups live in communities alongside Han Taiwanese, and hold fee simple titles to land that can be sold on free markets. For decades, the plains groups have been demanding access to reserve land, but have had only very limited success.

The proposed regulations for returning traditional territories potentially perpetuate this divide. If they are implemented, and if the self-governed autonomous regions promised in the Basic Law are created, the land used by Asia Cement would fall under the administration of a newly-formed Truku Autonomous Region or a local tribal council (部落會議). Asia Cement would then pay at least a portion of its monetary compensation directly to the Truku rather than to the state. For the plains groups such as the Amis and the Puyuma, however, the proposed regulations would have little effect without the inclusion of private property. In the coastal Amis village of Kaluluan, for example, Han Taiwanese investors have built tourist accommodations and attractions on private property located on Amis traditional territory without the legal need to obtain FPIC. Only by including private property within the legal definition of traditional territory can the plains groups create mechanisms for negotiating consent and compensation. It is certainly not mere coincidence that individuals from plains groups have spearheaded the protests on Ketagalan Boulevard.

In the meantime, the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) has called for indigenous communities (buluo, 部落) to apply for recognition of their traditional territory. In response to the protests in Taipei, the CIP has asked the local groups to make their claims without regard to what is currently classified as state or private land. The final decisions will be made through negotiations, after the promised “Indigenous Terrestrial and Maritime Territories Law” (原住民族土地及海域法) has been drafted and implemented.

A total of 268 communities have applied, which suggests that local leaders are willing to give Tsai’s government a chance. Mayaw Biho’s village of Ceroh (織羅部落) is among those communities. When asked by the media if he knew about this, he said that neither he nor the young people he consulted in Ceroh even heard about the plans, which suggests a lack of transparency and community consent. This seems remarkably similar to the ways in which the former Kuomintang government used to co-opt local elites, with the expectation that they will mobilize votes on the government’s behalf. Only time will tell if the DPP government is merely cultivating its own local supporters, or is sincere about recognizing indigenous sovereignty. Negotiations at all levels are underway, and it is impossible to predict where they will take Taiwan.

Scott Simon is professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies and co-chair in Taiwan studies at the University of Ottawa. He is also currently a visiting researcher at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan. Image Credit: Author provided.


  1. Are traditional ‘indigenous hunting rights’ workable in today’s society and environment? Would traditional hunting norms suffice to protect the environment in today’s modern world? Do the members of indigenous societies still even know those norms? Do they still feel themselves bound by those norms after the many drastic social transformations they experienced since they lost self-rule? Similar questions arise with other indigenous rights.

    Can there be a satisfactory resolution of conflicting land rights while there is a right to private property of any land? There is no fairness in private land ownership or, for that matter, in private ownership of any natural resource.

    Local elites will always be co-opted by outside forces as long as the locals are poor and the outsiders are rich and powerful.

    So, prospects for fair co-existence are diminutive and opportunities for conflict are plenty, easy solutions are illusory.


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