Uprooted by Taipei, indigenous people undaunted in fight for rights

How long are most people willing to sustain a sleep-out protest to stand up for their rights after the glare of the media spotlight has faded away?

For Amis singer Panai Kusui and her comrades demanding their rights as indigenous peoples, it has been 407 days, and their fight goes on.

“The thought of giving up never occurs to me. We are not ordinary people,” Panai told CNA on April 3. “We are who we are. We know what we are doing.”

Led by Panai, Nabu Husungan Istanda, and Mayaw Biho, the protesters have voiced their appeal from a makeshift encampment at the No. 1 entrance of the National Taiwan University Hospital MRT station since June 2, 2017.

They were forced to retreat to that location on that day when their previous base on nearby Ketagalan Boulevard was forcibly dismantled by the police during torrential rains.

Their encampment was again torn down on March 31, this time by Taipei’s Parks and Street Lights Office and Taipei Metro Corp. after Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (???) vowed to clear up permanent protest sites he described as “political road hogs.”

When their billboards — set up to draw public attention to traditional indigenous territory issues — were torn down that Saturday morning, the protesters did not resist but rather watched quietly, with some softly humming an old melody to themselves.

Only a few chairs and artworks left in the nearby 228 Peace Memorial Park suggest they still exist.

“Many friends asked us where we are going to be. I told them it’s not the first time we are being evicted and having stuff demolished,” said Mayaw, an Amis filmmaker.

“That’s OK. We will put them up again and stay put,” he said defiantly.

At the heart of their protest lie guidelines for handling traditional indigenous territories that took effect in February 2017 as part of the government’s efforts to promote transitional justice for indigenous peoples.

Those guidelines, as defined under Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, are aimed at creating a way for the 748 communities of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples to apply to have land designated as their traditional territory.

The designation of traditional indigenous territory means that the land and natural resources “delineated” were traditionally occupied, owned, or used by the indigenous community’s forefathers.

Once a proposed designation is approved by the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP), the community will be entitled to veto development projects as specified by the law and related regulations and to share the benefits of those they agree to.

Joseph Hsieh (???), the deputy chief of the CIP’s Land Administration Department, contends that the guidelines have been welcomed by most indigenous communities, with 268 of the 748 applying for designation of traditional lands.

Of those applications, the CIP is expected to approve four

proposals made by four Atayal communities in New Taipei and one by the Ita Thao community that lives near Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County in the near future, Hsieh said.

If approved, they would be the first officially recognized

traditional indigenous territories.

What irks many in the indigenous community, however, is that the guidelines only allow state-owned land to be designated as traditional territory even though the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law says traditional territory can be either state-owned or private land.

Believing that the Cabinet has blatantly flouted the law, the protesters want the government to rescind the guidelines and address the omission of privately owned lands from the definition of traditional territory.

Traditional territory, by definition

They also are demanding the resignation of CIP chief Icyang Parod, charging that he gave in to Cabinet members who wanted to exclude private land from the guidelines to prevent developers from running into obstacles arising from indigenous communities’ veto power.

Nabu, a Bunun singer from the Neibenlu community in Taitung County, said no one would be staying out on the streets in protest if there weren’t compelling circumstances.

“With private lands not considered part of traditional indigenous territories, the guidelines will result in greater dispossession of our ancestral lands, thus exacerbating the loss of our languages, culture, history and identities,” Nabu said.

Asked what has been the biggest challenge of the year-long protest for him, Nabu cited the constant din hovering around the city, a sharp contrast to the serenity of his hometown.

But as long as the injustices created by the guidelines remain, “I would not feel at ease at home even though staying at home is more comfortable,” he said. “The significance of our protest is not based on the measurement of time. It’s a path home.”

Before Taipei cleared most of the protesters’ belongings away, the encampment they had established was more than just an ordinary occupy-style site.

It had turned into an “alternative space” hosting painted rocks — which are culturally significant to indigenous peoples — paintings and other artworks left by indigenous people from around the country to show solidarity and offer a snapshot of the richness of indigenous culture.

They also held 175 night events with speeches live-streamed on Facebook aimed at helping non-indigenous society understand the history of indigenous peoples and the challenges they have faced over the centuries.

Panai laments that while the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law was passed 13 years ago, the issue of veto rights over development projects is still being misrepresented as these people trying to take back private land that their ancestors were deprived of.

In March 2017, President Tsai Ing-wen (???) promised to “communicate” with mainstream society that private lands should be recognized as traditional indigenous territory because indigenous peoples predate the formation of the nation state, Panai said.

Tsai also promised that her administration would explain that the delineation of traditional indigenous territory would not infringe on an owner’s private property rights, she said.

“But we have not seen her put in the effort, and we are thoroughly disappointed,” Panai said.

A matter concerning all

“The exclusion of private lands means the government still gives short shrift to environmental protection and indigenous rights in favor of development benefits. It’s a matter concerning everyone, not just indigenous peoples.”

Panai said she is planning to hold nationwide concerts beginning late next month to raise public awareness on this issue.

In response, the CIP’s Hsieh said his agency will propose a draft bill by May 13 covering transitional justice and the restitution of rights for indigenous peoples that will address issues concerning private lands.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel