Creating Alternative Futures Through Indigeneities: Between Taiwan and the Philippines: Part II.

Written by Yi-Yu Lai.

Image Credit: 980517-Cordillera Day-50 by Lennon Ying-Dah Wong /Flicker, License: CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is part two of a two-part article. Part one can be found here

Since the early 1980s, the PCT (The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan) intentionally organized groups visiting several countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, because they attempted to strengthen and magnify their overseas missionary work in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, they not only collaborated with a Taiwanese pastor Jun-Nan Li (李俊男), who started to serve in the City of Cagayan de Oro since 1978, but also made contacts with the UCCP (United Church of Christ in the Philippines). At first, those Taiwanese people were all set to introduce their preaching works to the Filipinos during their first visit of 1983. However, they serendipitously found that the Philippine Indigenous resistance experiences might become a possible alternative to address their church land issue in Taiwan. Indeed, the government continuously increased rent payment of mountainous church lands. For the sake of conveying the issue from a mere church affair to a fight of Indigenous ancestral lands, they subsequently planned another visit that was specifically focusing on Indigenous land struggles in 1986.

Undoubtedly, it is difficult to evaluate the degree of impact from a short-period visit; nevertheless, such international networking affected some aspects of Taiwan’s Indigenous movements. Just as they used a poster from the Philippines to promote their campaign for church land issue in 1983, the PCT once again introduced a poster presented in the Cordillera Day of 1985 in the Philippines, as one of the photographs for the Taiwan Mountain People Calendar of 1987. Another poster was used as the 1987 Mountain Work Sunday Poster with a slogan translated from English into Chinese—“Land—A Lost Ancestral Inheritance—How to Recover It?” Before these usages, it is noted that the PCT never used politicized images for their Calendar or Work Sunday Poster. However, within the 1987 Calendar, they started introducing several urgent social themes that Indigenous people confronted, including workers, fishermen, traditions, rituals, mother-tongue, land issue, tourist culture, urban Indigenous peoples, etc.

For the national movement level, the delegation members also brought back a copy of the Statements of Principles of the WCIP (The World Council of Indigenous Peoples) back to Taiwan. According to the Pastor Michael Stainton (史邁克), who served as a translator at the time, the translated version was passed on to the ATA (The Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines), thereafter published in an article “The Restricted Mountain Area and the Indigenous Autonomous Area” of the magazine Yuanzhumin (原住民) No. 5 (1987). Regarding ancestral lands as a foundation for Indigenous autonomy, such a discourse shift influenced not simply on the new released Mountain People Reserved Land Regulations of 1990 to permit churches to use lands without rent, but on the following Return our Land Movement in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

After their visit, the delegation also maintained and even expanded their solidarity networks with international partners. They held a special offering for a school and a grassroots organization in the Cordillera for their follow-up action. Furthermore, they sent a delegate to the CPA solidarity Conference in Baguio in April 1987. Concurrently, they also proposed to research joining the WCIP and other international Indigenous meetings, just as the CPA has proactively engaged in their networks since the early 1980s. These actions were one of the crucial factors that gave impetus to the following Indigenous resistances. Nevertheless, it should not be ignored that demands from Indigenous people made tremendous progress because the Taiwanese government lifted the Martial Law in the middle of 1987. Thus, many Indigenous activists and elites joined the public services ranks, transforming the relationship between Indigenous people and the state.

This dynamic relationship between Indigenous people and the state could be actually observed through international activities’ participation—sometimes it might even reflect Indigenous peoples’ internal differences. Based on my fieldwork experiences, some Philippine Indigenous activists noticed that Taiwan Indigenous people still cultivated their international networking after the Martial Law period in the early 1990s. However, some of them started to admire what the government did without critics instead. While numerous Indigenous groups from different countries kept talking about international solidarity among the oppressed people, there was a period were exchanging activities for Indigenous peoples between Taiwan and the Cordillera region almost disappeared.

Until the late 1990s and the early 2000s, some other Indigenous groups in Taiwan began to visit that region again. Unlike the previous stage were most international participants were Indigenous elites, relatively voiceless people now have more chances to attend those activities. This relates to activists who attempt to mobilize and empower local communities against the perspective from Indigenous elites or Indigenous youths who were born and raised in cities and are not familiar with their roots anymore. Here, the key is not merely who attends international activities; rather, it is clear that the focus of Indigenous mobilization in Taiwan has transformed. For instance, in the early 2010s, several Indigenous activists from Kankei community, Yilan County rallied their people and fought for their water rights. Before that campaign, those activists had the opportunity to visit the Cordillera region and study the situation. They learned how to empower their people and open up space for voices from below and with much more horizontal connections. As a result, varieties of Indigenous experiences could be seen and evaluated through this kind of decentralized actions, offering diversified blueprints for Indigenous people to think of their futures.

This tendency reveals the shift of Indigenous issues in Taiwan and indicates the feature of Indigenous movements. Since Indigenous people are a relational category embedded in the state’s tension, the international networking story will never really end because this is always a possible channel for the oppressed to move beyond the state’s impacts. From such a starting point between Taiwan and the Philippines, the international aspect of Indigenous movements has become concrete and needed to be emphasized.

This is part two of a two-part article. Part one can be found here

Yi-Yu Lai is currently a PhD student in Anthropology at University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA, and he has studied the Indigenous resistance in the highland Philippines since 2014. Focusing on the issues of political violence and Indigenous politics, he has participated in countless academic, voluntary, and cultural exchanging projects in Taiwan, Hawaii, and the Philippines.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Philippines relations, which was coordinated with help from Shun-Nan Chiang, a PhD candidate in sociology at UCSC.

One comment

  1. Unfortunately it happened all too often that once “Indigenous activists and elites joined the public services ranks, the relationship between Indigenous people and the state [is transformed]”. Later on other activists “attempt to mobilize and empower local communities against the perspective from Indigenous elites” because now the elites are interested in protecting their personal gains and enhancing them, thus getting disconnected from and disinterested in the needs of the wider community.

    Liked by 1 person

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