Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has officially apologised to the island’s indigenous population for centuries of mistreatment, the first time a leader has done so.
Speaking to representatives from 16 recognised native tribes, she said Taiwan had to face “the truth” to move forward “as a country of one people”. Ms Tsai said a historical justice commission would be established.
Immigrants from mainland China arrived in Taiwan about 400 years ago. Indigenous people lost ancestral land rights and had their traditional lifestyles, languages and cultures restricted under harsh policies of assimilation.
They remain disadvantaged compared to other Taiwanese, with higher levels of unemployment and lower average wages. They now make up about two per cent of Taiwan’s more than 23 million people.
“For the past 400 years, each regime that came to Taiwan has brutally violated indigenous people’s existing rights through military might and land looting,” Ms Tsai said, adding that a “simple verbal apology” was not enough.
Capen Nganen, an 80-year-old representative of the Yami people, said he hoped the government “will truly deliver on the promises made in this apology”.
Other indigenous activists said they had expected more in terms of policy.
Protests outside Ms Tsai’s office over the weekend called for indigenous hunting rights to be protected.The establishment of national parks on their land has led to anger over the need to obtain permits for hunting, fishing and foraging.
Ms Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party came to power in January, is the first Taiwanese leader with aboriginal heritage.
Her paternal grandmother was from the Paiwan indigenous tribe and she had promised an apology during the election campaign.
Taiwan was inhabited by a variety of tribes for thousands of years before Dutch colonisers began importing Chinese labourers in large numbers during the mid-17th century.
The Dutch were expelled from the island by Chinese privateer Koxinga.
It was loosely administered from the mainland until becoming a province in 1885 under foreign pressure and was made a colony by Japan in 1895.
At the end of the Second World War, Taiwan was handed to Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, whose government relocated to the island in 1949 after being driven from China by Mao Zedong’s communist forces.