Taipei (AsiaNews) Human rights activists announced plans for a 3,000-person strong march today in defence of Taiwan's indigenous tribes. The protest stems from remarks uttered by vice president Annette Lu, who urged Taiwanese Aborigines to move to Latin America to let the government address local environmental problems. Her comments were made whilst visiting villages in mountain areas in central Taiwan that were hit by a recent tropical storm. Ms. Lu further angered indigenous people by suggesting that they were not the first inhabitants of the island despite their rich cultural heritage and all the evidence to their secular presence.
"The vice president's comments are very serious and have caused divisions and hurt the indigenous community," Sister Ida Porrino, an Italian missionary belonging to the Daughters of St. Paul, told AsiaNews. The nun, who has spent 30 years in the country, went on to say that "the truth is the Aborigines are in the way and the government wants to remove them from the mountains. Every year during typhoon season the mountain areas are hit devastating entire villages. The government is then stuck with a heavy aid and reconstruction bill for communities that are widely seen as unproductive and marginal to the rest of the country. For historical and cultural reasons these communities are still victims of discrimination."
Ms. Lu has refused to apologise arguing that her comments were twisted and blown out of portion. However, according to Lili Lee, a Taipei-based co-operator with the Pauline sisters, "the vice president has for all intents and purposes blamed the Aborigines for what happened to them, accused them of inhabiting uninhabitable areas, of being unconcerned about their lands, of growing binlan, a fruit whose reddish pulp acts as a narcotic stimulant and whose shallow roots contributes to soil erosion and landslides. The fact of the matter is that binlan is widely used by all Taiwanese and that most land destined for growing binlan are held by rich lowlanders who draw a pretty penny from it. Homes and bridges collapse because they were built with second rate materials. The fact is little investment goes to the highlands where most Aborigines live."
"The government," Sister Ida said, "has never really cared for these people whose cultural values are based on a profound respect for life, nature, and the family. They too belong to Taiwan. There are some initiatives in favour of them such as student bursaries and loans and other types of credit but there is no overall concern that could address their needs in a comprehensive fashion. Up in the mountains, the only people who are really concerned are Catholic and Protestant missionaries."
Many Aborigines have converted to Christianity as a result of the missionaries' evangelising activities which also include protecting and promoting local cultures. Sister Ida pointed out tat "in addition to spreading the Christian message in these communities, the missionaries have translated the Bible, the liturgy and the catechesis in local, largely oral languages thus contributing to their preservation. For their part, the Daughters of St. Paul tried to fill the gap that existed and so we taped aboriginal folk music and liturgical songs that deserve to be preserved and known."
Aborigines represent only 2% of Taiwan's population which now stands at 22 million. They are organised into 10 tribes Ami, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Shao, Saisiat, Tsou, Yami each one with its own unique language, origins, and traits. They are mostly craftsmen involved in wood working and fabrics weaving. And like indigenous people elsewhere they have experienced ill-treatment and discrimination.
"In the past they were segregated as a result of government policy, officially for security reasons. They were thus isolated and living under precarious conditions. They could visit the lowlands only with a police permit," Ms. Lee said. "Unfortunately, today many people are still closed-minded about the Aborigines because of the past. Japan occupied the island in 1885 and many non indigenous Taiwanese still accuse the Aborigines of having collaborated with the Japanese in the last war. Aborigines categorically deny such accusations," she said.