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Taiwan's president expresses 'deepest apologies' for government's decades of abuse against indigenous people

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen apologized Monday to her island’s 530,000 indigenous Austronesian people to mark the government’s role in decades of racial discrimination, use of native land and forced cultural assimilation.

Her 4,000-word apology before representatives of Taiwan’s 16 distinct ethnic groups, known commonly as aborigines, was a first for Taiwan and timed for Indigenous Peoples' Day, another first for the island.

“I want to represent the government and express our deepest apologies,” Tsai said at a presidential office ceremony that included an aboriginal ritual allowing tribal spirits to know the president and a prayer for her to pass pro-indigenous laws.

“Let me use simple language to explain the reasons for this apology,” said the president, who has been in office slightly more than two months. “There were indigenous people living on this land 400 years ago. Those people had their own life, their own languages, culture, customs and lands to live on. Then without their permission a different group of people suddenly came onto that land.”

That group was the ethnic Chinese, who migrated from southeastern China. Indigenous people now make up about 2% of Taiwan’s population.

Aborigines first came to the island from continental Asia, 100 miles away, about 3,500 years ago and became Taiwan’s first recorded inhabitants. The seafaring people eventually used boats to fan out across the Pacific Ocean as far away as Easter Island, west of South America.

After Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government fled to Taiwan from China in the 1940s after losing the Chinese civil war, it forced the largely hunting-based societies to relocate, squelched use of native languages and destroyed homes in some areas.

Many aborigines now form an economic underclass in the mountains and relatively undeveloped east coast, where jobs are scarce — adding to ethnic Chinese stereotypes of indigenous people as chronically unemployed and often drunk.

Indigenous leaders have pushed government officials for more rights, including autonomous areas where they can elect their own leaders and pursue traditions such as hunting.

About 15 years ago, then-President Chen Shui-bian brought indigenous rights into focus to show that Taiwan’s ethnic roots differ from those of China, a longtime political rival. Communist officials in Beijing say the two places share an ethnic heritage, part of the argument for why the two should unify instead of being ruled separately as they are today.

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Chen raised the national budget for aboriginal assistance in 2007 to $195 million a year, more than double the levels of a decade earlier, to improve education, healthcare and standards of living in majority indigenous villages.

His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, in office from 2008 through last May, increased indigenous people’s welfare by offering limited local autonomy in tribal areas and laying plans to build 30 schools by 2023 to help preserve native cultures, including languages.

Tsai’s apology extends the efforts of both former presidents and comes exactly 22 years after Taiwan added an indigenous-rights clause to its constitution. The clause says the government should protect the social status and political participation of indigenous people, while supporting their education, economy and social welfare.

“Our land has been taken away, we have lost the majority of our languages, many of our peoples have died and we have lost our dignity and self-confidence,” said Kolas Yotaka, a Taiwanese legislator and indigenous rights advocate from the Amis aboriginal group. “The apology represents the government recognizing its wrongdoings in the past, allowing the indigenous peoples to feel comforted.”

Indigenous people still want more than the apology. Many hope for stronger preservation of 14 remaining native languages, which have faded as people from tribal villages move to cities for work. The government also has not granted any indigenous group a fully autonomous region.

“The demand for the return of land is the most important one,” Yotaka said. “The second is the revival of our languages. Without languages, there is no culture because many of the languages contain our conventional wisdom and our world perspectives.”

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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