Hundreds of Taiwanese indigenous villagers protested Aug. 7 against the government’s resettlement plans ahead of the one-year anniversary of the disastrous Typhoon Morakot. “Guard the homeland” and “oppose forced resettlement,” shouted protesters from central and southern Taiwan, as they gathered in Ketagalan Square near the presidential office in Taipei. Some 1,000 villagers camped in the square to press President Ma Ying-jeou hear their demands. “We are forced to move out of our lands and this will destroy our tribes and cultures,” said organizer Omi Wiling of the Indigenous Peoples Action Coalition of Taiwan (IPACT). “We want to have a say in the resettlement process. The government neither understands nor respects our way of life.”
Thousands of villagers were left homeless when Morakot devastated much of Taiwan last year, leaving more than 700 dead or missing. Authorities have since built 1,480 new houses to accommodate nearly 6,000 people. The government asserts that all resettlement are voluntary.
But an IPACT statement said it “hurt the heart” that the government “never tried to think from the viewpoint of the indigenous people when outlining the reconstruction policy.” Charging that the only goal of the reconstruction policy is forcing the villagers from their lands, IPACT blasted the relocation measures as “rude and crude,” and asserted that not all the flood-affected areas should be classified as “dangerous areas.” (Taiwan News, China Post, AFP, Aug. 7; CNA, Aug. 6; CNA, Aug. 2)
The controversy (echoing similar land disputes in Thailand and elsewhere following the 2004 tsunami) comes amid an effort to preserve Taiwan’s indigenous cultures and tongues from falling prey to the global language die-back. Only some 35% of Taiwan’s 500,000 Austronesian native people can speak their tribal tongue, according Chang Shin-liang, head of the language and culture department of the government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples. “We’re facing a dangerous situation for indigenous languages,” said Chang. “Seven out of 14 indigenous languages here are listed by UNESCO as critically endangered.”
The decline of the island’s indigenous languages is due to centuries of official policy, which some in the government are now trying to reverse with education programs. Han Chinese languages became dominant on Taiwan in the 17th century. Under Japanese occupation (1895-1945), the Taiwanese—Han and indigenous alike—were forced to learn and speak Japanese. Han dominance was restored when the Kuomintang took power in 1945, instating harsh suppression of native Taiwanese languages in favor of the official Mandarin. “The Japanese and Kuomintang governments’ combined 100-year policy of forbidding us from speaking our languages did a lot of damage,” said Chang. “It affected three generations.”
It is believed that Austronesians migrated from mainland Asia and Taiwan to Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and Madagascar thousands of years ago. But of the world’s estimated 300 million Austronesians—including New Zealand’s Maoris and Hawaii’s Polynesians—few can speak their indigenous language, and many of these tongues now face extinction. (BBC News, July 14)