Unsettled Transitional Justices: Indigenous Sovereignty and the Limit of Democracy

Written by Yu Liang (Leeve Palrai).

Image credit: Night Festival of the Siraya people by SOTEKIZEN1982/ Wikimedia commons, License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Indigenous people of Taiwan (Taiwan yuanzhumin) refers to Austronesian-speaking groups whose occupation of the island pre-dates waves of colonial powers of Spanish (1626–1642), the Dutch (1624–1662), the Chinese Zheng regime (1662–1683), Qing China (1683–1895), Imperial Japan (1895–1945), and the Republic of China regime (1949-present). While the category of “yuanzhumin” comprises two sub-categories directly following the considerably problematic Japanese colonial classification—mountain-dwelling (shandi) and plain-dwelling (pingdi)—the Pingpu groups, who also identify themselves as Indigenous to Taiwan, claim that their rights and history deserve to be recognised and legalised. The ambiguity of their identification lies in the historical account of modern Taiwan, where Indigenous people are either assimilated or barbarian. Thus, the Pingpu groups are considered assimilated, who now have no difference from the major Han population. This dominant historical narrative further claims that Pingpu groups naturally or even voluntarily became “Han” even though the assimilation is the result of the brutal settler colonisation since the Imperial Qing period

Against the Council of Indigenous Peoples’ constant denial of their legal identification, the Siraya people now turn to the Supreme Court to seek recognition through constitutional interpretation. The day before the final ruling of the Supreme Court pertaining to the constitutional recognition of the Siraya and other Pingpu groups as “Indigenous,” Wan Zheng-Xiong, the founder of the Siraya Cultural Association, once again demonstrated his unflinching will in an interview: “We Siraya people are indigenous. Therefore, it is the responsibility and obligation of the Taiwanese state to give back the identity and justice to us.” The ground-breaking ruling in the next day proved that Siraya and other Pingpu groups’ call had been heard– in the Mayor of Tainan City Huang Wei-Che’s words, a “belated justice” finally revealed for Siraya people. For Siraya people and other Pingpu groups, justice means having the right to claim their existence in Taiwan vis-à-vis the official historical account portraying them as “extinct” or “disappearing.” In other words, the justice Siraya people demand is not merely a reification of identification or status but a historical reckoning of personhood and identity.

The justice revealed in Siraya’s ruling is in response to the national project of Indigenous transitional justice. Specifically, it responds to the promise of President Tsai Ing-Wen in her 2016 presidential apology that Pingpu groups shall be granted the equal rights and status as fellow Indigenous Taiwanese have. Yet, influential as it is, the idea of indigenous transitional justice in Tsai’s account remains unclear: Who should be held accountable for the erasure of Siraya and other Pingpu groups’ identity and status? When and how did it happen in the first place? Questions of who/when/how aim to identify the context and victimhood in the work of transitional justice, but the real question here is whether or not these questions in the Indigenous Taiwanese context could be properly answered through the transitional justice framework. In this short, exploratory article, I will try to answer these questions by arguing that transitional justice and Indigenous transitional justice should be carefully differentiated in terms of their goals and ultimate aspirations.

The Role of Transitional Justice in Becoming a Qualified Democratic Partner

The central spirit of transitional justice is to uncover the historical wrongs and to reconcile the tension between an injured past and the apologetic present. Namely, transitional justice challenges the legacy of human violation in the aftermath of mass atrocities. As the term “transitional” signals, transitional justice efforts thus mark the transition from an authoritarian past to a democratic present. Transitional justice, eventually, aims to re/establish civil order and repair the damaged social relations through democratic governance and a just legal system. In Taiwan, the determination of reconciliation comes hand in hand with transitional justice under the purpose of futurity-making, which centres on a national discourse of cross-ethnic-group solidarity and, more importantly, the national pride of being a democratic, sovereign country. It is transitional justice that comes to the fore of Taiwan’s nation-building vis-à-vis the long-standing invasive threat of the Chinese state.

It is rather unsurprising that the assemblage of transitional justice and national reconciliation plays a crucial role in nation-building in Taiwan since its political significance has been profoundly influential in the South African context. In South Africa, reconciliation is an amalgam of transnational human rights and Christian ethics of forgiveness and redemption, which construct new notions of the national self and psyche. Reconciliation here constitutes a secular moral response and state ritual that functions to transform the idea of a new nation-state and reinvent the myth of nationhood. For Taiwan, joining the “globalisation of forgiveness” and “modelling values of civility” demonstrates its deep investment in transitional justice as central Taiwan’s image as a reformed, renewed nation and qualified democratic partner.

It becomes loud and clear that democracy comes to the fore in the terrain of global transitional justice as an essential foundation and major facilitator. However, democracy and democratisation may have certain limitations when reimagining indigenous subjectivity, particularly indigenous sovereignty. As researchers have pointed out, politics of recognition and democratic multiculturalism tend to reduce Indigenous existence into an essentialised form of cultural distinctiveness or manageable normativity. The major idea here is that their justice claims could be met as long as they are not too radical and appalling to the norms of the general society. It is particularly true in the case of the Siraya people that the “radicalness” of their claims on indigeneity cacophonously challenges the existing understanding of “Indigenous people.” Icyang Parod, the head of the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP), expresses his concern about Pingpu groups being profusely assimilated by the Han culture and thus proposes that the Pingpu peoples shall be considered as “Pingpu indigenous people” vis-a-vis the official “Indigenous people” category. The reluctance of the CIP shows how much they will try to align themselves with the major Han society’s unilateral assertions of indigeneity and colonial history by leaving the current racial/ethnic systemic order intact. 

The Limit of Recognition Politics in terms of Transitional Justice?

To what extent would transitional justice allow for an Indigenous reconfiguration of identity and personhood vis-à-vis its ultimate goal of rectifying historical wrongs? Specifically, for Siraya people, Pingpu ethnic groups and the rest of the unofficial Indigenous peoples in Taiwan, the true justice lies in the possibility of claiming who they are in their own sovereign voices—which the state democracy may or may not tolerate. Democracy and its companion liberal multiculturalism, in this sense, risk essentialising the idea of indigeneity as the property of an ethnic group by fetishising cultural distinctiveness as internal homogeneity. It is the narrative of dilution and impurity that stumble Siraya people and other Pingpu groups on their journey of identification-seeking, even though “diasporic ruptures and connections—lost homelands, partial returns, relational identities, and world-spanning networks—are fundamental components of Indigenous experience today,” to quote anthropologist James Clifford’s insightful phrasing. 

How do we understand this partial, in-between indigeneity granted by the Taiwanese constitutional identity regime within the fabric of transitional justice? The story of how Siraya becomes “Indigenous” unfolds greater considerations on how we problematise the condition and define “Indigenous people” as a political category and cultural identity. The term “become/becoming” I adopt by no means intends to undermine Pingpu groups’ claims on indigeneity; rather, the idea of “become/becoming” aims to expound the fluid nature of Indigenous identity that does not allow for a rigid fixation on an essentialist notion or cultural premise. Furthermore, Siraya’s case also sheds light on the entanglement of power and identity where being Indigenous is not solely dependent on individual determination but rather being intervened by varied regimes of interpretations.

I am trying to argue here, through the case of Siraya constitutional interpretation, that a democracy-based framework of transitional justice may be well suited for the issues of historical injustice in the authoritarian period. Still, it is not necessarily always the case for the historical and ongoing injustice inflicted upon Indigenous people in Taiwan. 

In an interview regarding the political efficacy and morality of the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee in 2017, Yao Jen-to, then-executive secretary of the Committee, comments on the debates and controversies surrounding the Committee: “We [the Tsai government] are surely determined and invested in this democratic mechanism of Indigenous transitional justice. So why can’t we give the mechanism more time?” 

He further clarified what he meant by transitional justice. In Yao’s advocacy, right-pursuing and reconciliation comprise indigenous transitional justice. How he asked for more understanding of the mechanism is his calling for giving democracy more time, is to ask the governed to be more patient with the solutions to their damaged past and hurtful present, and calling for a trustful, reciprocal relationship between Indigenous people and the Taiwanese state—which in broad strokes is almost like the “renewed” new partnership between indigenous Taiwanese and Taiwanese government (xin huoban guanxi) since its emergence in 1999. Nevertheless, neither the new partnership proposed two decades ago nor the “renewed” reciprocal relation in the transitional justice era did much help to advance indigenous sovereignty or autonomy in Taiwan. Siraya’s case may seem like a victory and the revelation of “belated justice.” However, Siraya people’s undermined claims on indigeneity and their peculiar identification as a “third-category Indigenous people” still cast doubts on this celebratory moment.

Reclaiming the Very Own Sovereign Voices

Democracy, multiculturalism, and even nationalism are at play in the terrains of transitional justices in Taiwan, whether Indigenous or “non-Indigenous”. It is a national pride and democratic determination that urges the Taiwanese state to apologise to Indigenous people in 2016. This “country of justice” aspires to collectively fight for a more just and co-existing future. However, as I am trying to argue in this essay, it is the purview of justice and the “regime of tolerance” that allows for indigenous people to become as indigenous as the state wishes. 

To echo the incredibly penetrating critique made by Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard, I argue that the narrative of state democracy and liberal multiculturalism in the framework of transitional justice “risks reproducing the very configurations of colonial power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend.” As an Indigenous Taiwanese anthropologist, I envision the idea of justice and the work of Indigenous transitional justice will truly enable Indigenous people, no matter which categories of them, to claim their conditions, theories, and values of being Indigenous in their very own sovereign voice.

Yu Liang (Leeve Palrai) is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Cornell University. By examining the work of national reconciliation and historical injustice, her dissertation explores how an internationalised, global concept of indigeneity becomes localised, contested, and remade in settler colonial, post-authoritarian Taiwan. She belongs to the ‘oponoho community of the Indigenous Rukai Nation in Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Indigenous Recognition for Siraya People.

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