Events of 2015

In Taiwan there are 16 officially recognized aboriginal tribes. The Taiwanese Constitution, Additional Article 10, requires the state to safeguard their status and political participation, as well as provide assistance for, among other things, indigenous culture, education, health, economic activity and land. Taiwan's aboriginal peoples also have guaranteed political representation, with a mandated 6 seats within the 113-member Taiwanese legislature. Nevertheless, these communities continue to suffer the effects of decades of assimilationist policies and land seizures, disrupting and undermining their ability to maintain traditional practices such as hunting. Despite protracted attempts to develop a framework of political autonomy for Taiwan's aboriginal communities, drawn out over almost 15 years of discussions and multiple revisions of the proposed legislation, the latest draft again stalled in parliament during 2015 amid opposition both from representatives opposing its concessions and indigenous activists critical of its failure to provide full autonomy to its communities.

Taiwan lost its seat at the UN in 1971, when the People's Republic of China was recognized as the representative of China, and is now unable to ratify UN treaties. However, successive Taiwanese governments have stated their commitment to implementing international instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant texts into domestic law. As such, 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Basic Law on Indigenous Peoples and the establishment of the Indigenous Television Network, in line with the requirement of the 1998 Aboriginal Education Law that there should be television programming devoted to indigenous culture and education.

Building on this existing legislation, in November 2015 the Legislative Yuan adopted a law designed to promote indigenous languages. Taiwan's Council of Indigenous Peoples, a ministry-level body that guides much of the government's indigenous policy, welcomed the law as an important step in protecting indigenous culture. The need to provide greater support is especially urgent when many of these languages are now under threat: according to UNESCO, 5 of the 42 indigenous languages and dialects spoken in Taiwan are considered critically endangered (just one step removed from extinction), one is deemed severely endangered and a further nine are vulnerable. The law provides that the central government will fund research and studies in indigenous languages and that public signs in indigenous areas will include the local language. Indigenous communities will also be able to communicate in their own language during government or legal proceedings. Following on from this, in January 2016 the government launched an ambitious five-year indigenous education programme to incorporate indigenous culture and language into curricula, provide indigenous students with additional support and establish tailored educational institutions.

Despite this limited legislative progress, concerns from previous years over the use of traditional indigenous lands for tourism and other purposes, as well as constraints on cultural practices in nationalized lands, persisted in 2015. Of particular concern in terms of preserving indigenous cultural heritage and economic livelihoods is the issue of hunting. In December, indigenous communities across Taiwan demonstrated against the conviction of Tama Talum, a 56-year-old indigenous Bunun man who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for illegal weapons possession and poaching. For many indigenous communities in Taiwan, hunting is not only about butchering animals but also social performance and gender identity: it can amount to a spiritual communication. However, despite its relative importance in indigenous culture, Taiwanese law only permits non-commercial hunting conducted for public ceremonies approved by local governments. A 2013 Supreme Court decision, furthermore, established that indigenous men could only hunt with homemade rifles and ammunition, which are dangerous and ineffective. In January 2016, the Ministry of Interior announced the possibility of relaxing such regulations to allow aborigines to hunt during traditional festivals.

The cultural practices of Taiwan's aboriginal communities have also attracted increasing interest from outside the country. In July, for example, the US-based Discovery Channel announced it would be releasing a programme called Taiwan's Tribal Treasure, in close collaboration with the Council of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous cultural heritage in Taiwan received further recognition in October when the World Monuments Fund announced it was including a 600-year-old ancestral Rukai village on its Monuments Watch list. Despite its significance in Rukai mythology, the village was largely abandoned in 1974 when the village council voted to relocate closer to modern infrastructure. Its inclusion on the Watch List will highlight the importance of its fragile physical remains and the valuable intangible Rukai heritage associated with the site.

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