Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Mandarin (official), Taiwanese (also known as Hoklo or Minnanese), Hakka
Main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, I-Kuan Tao, Christianity
Indigenous peoples (also referred to as Aborigines) include Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Hla’alua, Kanakaravu, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Seediq, Thao, Truku, Tsou and Yami (officially recognized), as well as Pingpu (unrecognized).
The vast majority of Taiwan’s population are Han Chinese (around 97 per cent), though most of these belong to two groups considered to be ‘Native Taiwanese’: the Hokkien who originally began immigrating from China’s southern Fujian province in the 16th century and represent about 70 per cent of the total population, and the Hakka (around 15 per cent of the total population) who migrated in the same period from China’s Guangdong province.
More recent Chinese arrivals came from the mainland with the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government and troops after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communists in 1949.
About 559,000 (2.4 per cent) of the population belong to officially recognized indigenous peoples who have inhabited the island for thousands of years. There are 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples: Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Hla’alua, Kanakaravu, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Seediq, Thao, Truku, Tsou and Yami. In addition, there are also 10 unrecognized peoples of the plains, collectively known as Pingpu, which are fighting for official recognition; they may number as many as 400,000.
There have also been some half a million immigrants from mainland China and South-East Asia in recent years.
Updated July 2020
The legacy of state discrimination and land grabbing has left indigenous peoples in Taiwan struggling to sustain their cultures. While the situation of indigenous communities has improved significantly in recent years, this has nevertheless taken place against a backdrop of entrenched prejudice and discrimination. Indigenous communities continue to advocate for expanded cultural and political autonomy: despite public affirmations of support, the government has yet to implement the provisions of key legislation guaranteeing their rights and autonomy. Besides access to ancestral territories, a crucial element in the survival of their traditions is their ability to maintain their languages, many of which are increasingly under threat.
In this regard, a series of legislative initiatives to strengthen their cultural rights represent important steps by the state to reverse decades of decline, though the indigenous population continues to face many challenges in securing their full rights. Despite protracted attempts to develop a framework of political autonomy for Taiwan’s indigenous communities, drawn out over many years of discussions and multiple revisions of the proposed legislation, legislation has repeatedly stalled in parliament amid opposition both from representatives opposing its concessions and indigenous activists critical of its failure to provide full autonomy to its communities.
At present, there are 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes, concentrated in the less developed inland hills and west coast. The Taiwanese Constitution, Additional Article 10, requires the state to safeguard their status and political participation, as well as provide assistance for, among other things, indigenous culture, education, health, economic activity and land. Taiwan’s indigenous peoples also have guaranteed political representation, with a mandated 6 seats within the 113-member Taiwanese legislature. Nevertheless, these communities continue to suffer the effects of decades of assimilationist policies and land seizures, disrupting and undermining their ability to maintain traditional practices such as hunting. A number of indigenous peoples residing in the plains, known collectively as Pingpu, are still not formally recognized – though the government has taken some initial steps to change this.
There have been a number of positive developments in recent years to address the legacy of exclusion and dispossession the indigenous population have faced. In August 2016, following through on a campaign promise, President Tsai Ing-wen, whose grandmother was indigenous Paiwan, issued an official apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Not only significant for Taiwan’s indigenous population, Tsai’s apology is also the first time any Asian head of state has offered an apology to its indigenous communities. The text was subsequently translated into all 16 officially recognized indigenous languages, the first time a major government document has been published in this way.
While an important step, a number of indigenous people have expressed scepticism about the practical implications of the apology. The paramount indigenous concerns of land rights and hunting access are likely to remain sticking points for some government agencies, namely the Forestry Division, and a major test of follow-through. In 2017, the Council of Indigenous Peoples declared some 1.8 million hectares of land (around half Taiwan’s total land mass) to be traditional territory, the majority of which is public land and eligible for indigenous claims – though some activists have criticized the decision to exclude privately held land from this designation. There have been protests since in response to apparent efforts to limit the power of local communities to curtail certain activities on their land – a concern given the gap between the protections granted in some of Taiwan’s more progressive legislation on indigenous peoples’ rights and the government’s failure to implement these in practice.
Many of Taiwan’s indigenous languages are already extinct or critically endangered, partly as a result of their decades-long suppression by the government after 1945, placing their future survival in doubt. Past stigmatization, from which indigenous communities are still recovering, even extended to preventing the use of indigenous languages in the playground. The situation is especially urgent when many of these languages are now under threat: according to UNESCO, nine of the indigenous languages and dialects spoken in Taiwan are already considered extinct (although one is marked as revitalised), five critically endangered (just one step removed from extinction), one severely endangered, another definitely endangered and a further eight are vulnerable. It is hoped that a number of milestone legislative steps by the government, including the 2017 Indigenous Language Development Act and the 2018 National Languages Development Act, outlining increased support and protections for indigenous languages in schools, local government and other settings, will help to address this.
In Taiwan, overt disparagement of indigenous communities is nowadays rare in the public sphere. While prejudices have not disappeared, political parties and major institutions such as galleries and museums have positively acknowledged and showcased indigenous cultures. For example, while animal rights activists have continued to call on indigenous hunting contests to be banned on grounds of cruelty, their argument generally does not target indigenous culture directly but a practice they accuse of contradicting indigenous customs and damaging popular perceptions of indigenous communities. Nevertheless, ethnic tensions within the country remain a potentially divisive issue, and in previous years have been reflected in discriminatory comments regarding indigenous communities and other ethnic groups, including by senior politicians.
Updated July 2020
Taiwan is located north of the Philippines and south east of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It consists of the main island of Taiwan and smaller islands in the Taiwan Strait or off the south-eastern coast of the PRC. Taiwan itself is generally mountainous, with plains in the west end of the island, and tropical and sub-tropical vegetation.
Archaeologists have found evidence of prehistoric human habitation in Taiwan that dates back 12,000 to 15,000 years.
The ancestors of today’s indigenous population are thought to have arrived 4,000-8,000 years ago. While Han Chinese began to settle in the nearby Pescadores islands in the 13th century, they were held back from Taiwan by the indigenous peoples until about the 16th century. The Portuguese knew of Taiwan in the same century and gave it the name by which Europeans would know it until the 20th century: Formosa, the ‘Beautiful Island’.
The Dutch occupied parts of the island from the early 17th century and were able to keep out the Spanish, but the former were themselves removed in 1662 by mainland Chinese forces. Chinese warlords and pirates were to make Taiwan their base for a number of decades until the Qing dynasty annexed it in 1683 and it became part of Fujian province. This is when the first wave of Chinese migration to Taiwan began. There were initially edicts in place recognizing indigenous peoples’ land rights, but the flow of new migrants would increasingly exert pressure on setting these aside. In 1887 Taiwan was made a separate province of China but was to be ceded to Japan soon after the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.
There were some uprisings from mainly the Chinese inhabitants until about the 1920s. By the 1930s the Japanese authorities embarked on a drive to assimilate the local population by forcing them to adopt Japanese language and culture. As the tide of the Second World War turned against them, there were last-ditch attempts to allow the appointment or election of Taiwanese into the Japanese Diet so as to present Taiwan as an integral part of Japan, but these efforts were to remain fruitless.
The status of Taiwan was to become uncertain after events in 1945. While the Republic of China forces in Taihoku (today’s Taipei) accepted the surrender of Japanese troops in Taiwan, the province was put under the administrative control of the Republic of China in 1945 by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, no treaty made specific references to Taiwanese sovereignty. The position of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is that its sovereignty was transferred to China under the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.
Relationships between the Republic of China authorities and mainland Chinese, on the one hand, and native Taiwanese and indigenous peoples on the other, quickly led to distrust and riots, exacerbated by the political, cultural and linguistic differences between these groups. Tensions flared on 28 February 1947 – which has become known as the 228 Incident or Massacre – when it is thought that up to 30,000 people may have been killed after violence erupted following an incident in which a female vendor was beaten by the mainland Chinese authorities for selling untaxed cigarettes. The rebellion was crushed by the Republic of China military forces by the end of March 1947. These events also led to what is often called the ‘White Terror’ when political dissent and discussion of the massacre was prohibited. Martial law was imposed from 19 May 1949 to 15 July 1987. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned or executed for their real or perceived opposition to the Kuomintang (KMT) government.
After losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party of China, the KMT and its leader Chiang Kai-shek moved the Republic of China government to Taipei, though still maintaining that they remained the legitimate government of all China, and continued to be recognized as such by most of the international community until the 1970s. At the same time, the government of the PRC established in 1949 claimed it to be the legal representative of all of China, including Taiwan, and that the Republic of China’s government in Taipei was an illegitimate separatist group. It is thought that some 1.3 million mainland Chinese followed the KMT’s move to Taiwan from 1949, quickly coming to dominate many if not most aspects of the island’s economy and politics.
For almost four decades Taiwan was governed by what amounted to a one-party state dictatorship, with the KMT as the ruling party. All other political parties were banned, and political opponents were persecuted, imprisoned or executed. Martial law was lifted in 1987 and democratic reforms started to be introduced. Restrictions on the use of languages other than Mandarin, especially in the mass media, were lifted, human rights legislation and institutions started to be put into place, and various legislative and regulatory steps were taken to recognize the rights of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.
These started to emerge mainly in the 1990s as the then President Lee Teng-hui started to adopt a number of human rights initiatives, including a formal apology for the 228 Incident. There followed amongst others in 1996 the creation of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs [which later became a Cabinet-level body, the Council of Indigenous Peoples] and the introduction of laws and reforms to give better protection to women’s rights.
Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996. During this period, native Taiwanese and indigenous peoples started to be more vocal in their demands, including calls to formally secede from the rest of China. The victory of the Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian, in the presidential elections of 2000 ended more than half a century of KMT rule. After his election victory, Chen Shui-bian, the new President, declared that human rights would be a major element in his administration. Since then the country has made a number of positive steps to improve Taiwan’s human rights situation, with indigenous communities benefitting from greater recognition and inclusion.
Since the lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwan has moved towards a full-fledged democracy based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. As Taiwan lost its seat at the UN in 1971, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was recognized as the representative of China, it is now unable to ratify UN treaties. However, successive Taiwanese governments have stated their commitment to implementing international instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant texts into domestic law.
There have been a number of positive legislative and policy developments in recent years to improve the situation of Taiwan’s indigenous population. More recently, this has included a formal apology to Taiwan’s indigenous population by President Tsai Ing-wen in August 2016. In her apology, Tsai also announced the establishment of an Indigenous Peoples’ Committee for Historical and Transitional Justice. The Committee, convened in December 2016, is composed of 29 members with President Tsai and two deputies at the top, seven experts recommended by the President, and then 16 members representing the 16 recognized indigenous communities and three members for the Pingpu peoples, who serve two-year terms. The Committee is divided into five working groups overseeing land, culture, language, history and reconciliation. The Committee has been meeting regularly since its inception.
Other important developments include the Indigenous Language Development Act, passed in 2017, followed by the National Languages Development Act in 2018. Together these strengthen indigenous language rights in a range of areas including education and the use of indigenous languages by local governments. Nevertheless, there remain significant shortcomings in the realization of indigenous peoples’ rights. Despite the passage in 2005 of the Basic Law for Indigenous Peoples setting the foundation for their full autonomy, these provisions have yet to be realized.
A key question for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples is political representation. Depending on how their community is classified, they can vote for either three ‘mountain’ representatives or three ‘plains’ representatives, rather than the district representatives that other Taiwanese elect. The dilemma is that as the country’s indigenous population becomes increasingly urbanized, this separate rural-focused system is feeling increasingly outmoded. Attempts by indigenous politicians to reform the system to enable indigenous candidates to run for both indigenous and regular places have so far failed.
Taiwan has been regularly pressured by the PRC government on Uyghur and Tibetan issues. In February 2016, for instance, Taiwan refused to issue visas to World Uyghur Congress President Rebiya Kadeer and General Secretary Dolkun Isa, currently living in the US and Germany, to attend the first Asia-Pacific Religious Freedom Forum in Taiwan. Lobsang Sangye, Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile, was also blocked. In September 2016, China publically warned Taiwan against honoring an invitation to the Dalai Lama issued by Taiwanese legislator Freddy Lim. President Tsai did not say whether her government would capitulate to Beijing but her predecessor, Ma Ying-Jeou, had refused the Dalai Lama on several occasions. The last time the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Taiwan was 2009. There have been calls for the Dalai Lama to be permitted to visit Taiwan during 2019, with Democratic Progressive Party Secretary-General Lo Wen-ji stating that Taiwan would be open to hosting him.
In October 2016, more than 30 legislators established the Taiwan Parliamentary Group for Tibet. The bipartisan group was created to prioritize legislative amendments and work on refugee issues, as many of the Tibetans in Taiwan, who come from Nepal, have become stateless following Nepal’s selective denial of passport renewal under pressure from China. However, it has no official authority. In 2017, the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, which had attracted criticism from some quarters of being ineffective, was abolished.
To date, Taiwan still lacks formal legislation on asylum seekers and refugees. Taiwan undertook an initial review of a draft refugee bill in 2016 establishing a formal asylum application process for those who can claim persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political view or social group. A proposal to include gender and sexual orientation within the definition of ‘particular social group’ protection was removed by the Deputy Minister of the Interior. A large number of refugees and asylum seekers in Taiwan are Tibetan but critics have noted that the draft law did not benefit refugees who have already been granted protected status elsewhere, such as those previously in Nepal or India. In the meantime, the legislation – which ultimately dates back to 2005, when the first efforts to draft a new refugee law began – remains stalled. At present, refugees and asylum seekers in Taiwan still lack legal protections, forcing many to remain in the country illegally or face deportation back to situations where they face a risk of persecution.
Updated July 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Chang Fo-Chuan Center for the Study of Human Rights
Taiwan Association for Human Rights
Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact
Association for Taiwan Indigenous Peoples’ Policies (ATIPP)
LIMA Taiwan Indigenous Youth Working Group (LIMA Youth)
Updated July 2020
Sources and further reading
About Human Rights, Taiwan Panorama Archives, http://www.taiwan-panorama.com/en/mag_list.php?h1=About%20Taiwan&h2=Human%20Rights
Chen, Shubian, Raising the bar: Human-Rights initiatives in Taiwan, Harvard International Review, March, 2002.
Cohen, Marc, Taiwan at the Crossroads: Human Rights, Political Development and Social Change on the Beautiful Island, Asia Resource Center, Washington, 1988.
Dignity, Respect and Freedom – Human Rights in Taiwan, Government of the Republic of China, ,http://www.gio.gov.tw/taiwan-website/5-gp/rights/
Hakkas, Taiwan Panorama Archives, http://www.taiwan-panorama.com/en/mag_list.php?h1=Ethnicity%20and%20Culture&h2=Hakkas
Hucker, John, Democracy and Human Rights with Reference to Taiwan, New Century Institute, 2003.
Human and Constitutional Rights Resource Page, Taiwan, http://www.hrcr.org/national/t_z/taiwan.html
Human Rights Policy White Paper, Government of the Republic of China, Taipei, 2002., http://www.gio.gov.tw/taiwan-website/5-gp/2002hr/
Jao-mei, H., ‘Indigenous peoples of Taiwan’, Outsider, MRG newsletter, no. 42, 1995.
Liao, F., Establishing at National Human Rights Commission in Taiwan: The Role of NGOS and Challenges Ahead, Asia Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law, Volume 2, Number 2, 2001, pp. 90-10.
Neary, Ian, Human rights in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Routledge, 2002.
Online Human Rights Related Archives Exhibit, National Archives Administration, Government of China, http://www.archives.gov.tw/english/eweb_Human_Right.aspx
Taiwan Communiqué, http://www.taiwandc.org/twcom/index.html
Taiwanese Hakka, http://home.i1.net/%7Ealchu//hakka/toihakka.htm
The Tribes of Taiwan, http://www.sinica.edu.tw/tit/culture/0795_TribesOfTaiwan.html
Atayal: The Worldwide Voice of the Indigenous Tribes of Taiwan, http://www.atayal.org/Home.asp
Blundell, David, Austronesian Taiwan: Linguistics; History; Ethnology; Prehistory, Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines Publishing, 2000.
Council of Indigenous Peoples, http://www.apc.gov.tw/english/docDetail/detail_official.jsp?cateID=A000177&linkRoot=99
Ericsson, Niclas, Creating ‘Indian Country’ in Taiwan?, Harvard Asia Quarterly, Volume VIII, No. 1, Winter 2004., http://www.asiaquarterly.com/content/view/144/40/
Faure, David, In Search of the Hunters and Their Tribes. Taipei, Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines Publishing, 2001.
Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan, , http://www.indigenouspeople.net/taiwan.htm
Ka, C.M., Japanese Colonialism in Taiwan: Land Tenure, Development, and Dependency 1895-1945, Westview Press, 1996.
Li, Paul Jen-kuei, The Dispersal of The Formosan Aborigines in Taiwan, Languages and Linguistics 2001, 2.1:271-78.
Munsterhjelm, Mark, The First Nations of Taiwan: A Special Report on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Issue 26.2, 31 May 2002. http://www.cs.org/publications/csq/csq-article.cfm?id=1554&highlight=taiwan
Shih, Cheng-Feng, Legal Status of the Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan, http://www.taiwanfirstnations.org/legal.html
Taiwan Aboriginal News Magazine, http://www.pts.org.tw/php/news/abori/main.php
Taiwan Aboriginal Rights Web Page, http://www.taiwanfirstnations.org
Taiwanese Aborigines, Taiwan Panorama Archives, http://www.taiwan-panorama.com/en/mag_list.php?h1=Ethnicity%20and%20Culture&h2=Taiwanese%20Aborigines
The Culture of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples, http://www.chinatownconnection.com/culture-taiwan-indigenous-people.htm
The Tribes in Taiwan, Council of Indigenous Peoples, http://www.apc.gov.tw/english/docDetail/detail_ethnic.jsp?cateID=A000427&linkRoot=101
Minorities and indigenous peoples in