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Taiwan’s Presidential Candidates and their Indigenous Platforms

This essay first appeared on the Taiwan 2012 blog.

Indigenous people, accounting for about 2% of Taiwan’s population, are unlikely to influence the 2012 presidential election outcomes. Nonetheless, the relative success of the candidates in indigenous communities may influence elections for the Legislative Yuan, which has a quota of six indigenous legislators. The way in which candidates position themselves on indigenous rights, moreover, may indicate how they understand such issues as popular sovereignty and social justice. The goal of this post is to analyze how they position themselves in relationship to “multiculturalism” and “indigenism”.

The evolving framework of indigenous rights, as expressed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), is concerned about colonial injustice, affirms that indigenous peoples are equal to other peoples, and recognizes their right to self-determination. Indigenism, emphasizing indigenous sovereignty (self-government and land rights), can be contrasted with multiculturalism, focused more on ethnic harmony and social welfare.

In Taiwan, Article 10 of the additional articles of the ROC Constitution stipulates, “[t]he State shall, in accordance with the will of the ethnic groups, safeguard the status and political participation of the aborigines.” The 2005 Basic Law on Indigenous Peoples further outlines state responsibilities and indigenous rights, requiring the creation of indigenous autonomous zones. Yet there is still room for interpretation as policies are formulated and implemented.

All three candidates include indigenous rights in their platforms. Although “autonomy” emerges as a common leitmotif, there are differences in how they contextualize indigenous issues. Ma Ying-jeou’s (Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT) “Golden Decade” platform embeds eight planks under four guarantees: 1) the independence and integrity of the ROC; 2) the security and prosperity of Taiwan; 3) ethnic harmony and cross-straits peace; and 4) sustainable environment and just society. As part of “just society,” Ma subordinates indigenous rights to “ethnic harmony.” He promises to create indigenous autonomous zones (already stipulated by law), and make further progress on culture, education, and economic development. Ma’s platform thus frames indigenous rights in terms of ROC nationalism and ethnic harmony, positioning him closer to multiculturalism than to indigenism.

Tsai Ing-wen’s (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP) platform for the next decade of “development” is remarkably similar. With general goals of “strengthening Taiwan, consolidating Taiwan,” and core values of “looking to the world, equal justice,” she also subordinates indigenous issues under other goals. In the environmental section, she promises space to “develop indigenous tribal economies” in mountainous regions. Her 16th section, on “ethnic groups,” includes recognition in social memory, language rights, economic development, and the creation of autonomous zones. On autonomy, she promises to set up “self-managing” zones with secure financial resources. Tsai’s stated policy is thus closer to multiculturalism and social welfare developmentalism than to indigenism. Both Ma and Tsai seem to view indigenous people as ethnic minorities, rather than as colonized peoples with special rights in international law. The main difference between Ma and Tsai is that one subordinates multiculturalism to ROC nationalism, and the other to Taiwanese nationalism. From an indigenist perspective, both nationalisms are different variants of Han hegemony.

Dark horse candidate James Soong (People First Party, PFP) makes indigenous policy part of a bricolage of promises for youth, municipal reform, agriculture, indigenous peoples, disaster prevention, and education. His goals for indigenous peoples are framed as autonomy, equality, and development. His platform, beginning with themes of cultural “respect” and autonomy, states that the main principle is “self-sufficient development” rather than “long-term financial assistance.” The relative prominence of autonomy reflects the close relationship he cultivated with indigenous leaders while serving as Taiwan provincial governor; and suggests awareness of indigenism. Everyone knows that Soong is a Chinese nationalist, but he is the only candidate who does not explicitly subordinate indigenous policy to broader political goals or “ethnic relations”. His platform can be characterized as an ad hoc blend of light indigenism and heavy developmentalism. It was probably drafted by Walis Belin. Walis has been a KMT lawmaker, chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Council (IPC) under Chen Shui-bian’s DPP administration – and is the political maverick who actually succeeded in creating the IPC in the first place.

If re-elected, Ma can continue to build upon the progress made during his first term. Most of the work at the IPC, led by Dr. Sun Da-chuan, emphasized social welfare while strengthening cultural foundations for autonomy. Tsai would likely replace Sun with an indigenous leader from Presbyterian networks, bringing a stronger preference for legal autonomy and experience with international activism. Soong, who has the strongest base in grassroots base in indigenous communities, is likely to get the most indigenous votes. If so, his legislative candidates will have better chances of getting elected, and may make forceful advocates for indigenous rights as members of the opposition. Walis Belin, surely not by coincidence, is one of those candidates. In terms of indigenous politics, he may be the real victor.

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