On August 1st, 2016, Taiwanese president Tsai-Ing Wen officially apologized to the island’s Indigenous peoples for centuries of “pain and mistreatment.” Taiwan is home to over 500,000 Indigenous people (roughly 2 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens), speaking 14 different languages. Since the 17th century, Indigenous tribes, who have inhabited the region for over 6,000 years, have lost ancestral land rights and have had traditional livelihoods, culture, and language subjected to colonial policies of displacement, dispossession, and destruction.
In her apology, Ing-Wen mentioned the long history of violence against Indigenous peoples, as well as the role of state policy in dispossessing Indigenous people of their land and attempting to eradicate Indigenous language and culture. Similar to the 2008 Residential Schools Apology in Canada, Ing- called for truth and reconciliation to right historical wrongs. In her apology, she said:
“I do not expect any one speech or phrase of apology to wipe away four centuries of pain and suffering by the indigenous peoples. But I do hope with all my heart that today’s apology will set this country and all its people on the path towards reconciliation.”
She also announced a number of reforms as part of the government’s “duty for reconciliation.” These include promoting Indigenous self-government, easing hunting restrictions, and developing a system for greater Indigenous self-determination and autonomy.
It is heartening to see more governments around the world acknowledging the legacy of colonization and its continued effects on Indigenous peoples. It is also important that governments, such as Taiwan, make concrete pledges to address historical wrongs. However, as we know too well in Canada, heartfelt apologies do not necessarily mean the state will start to treat Indigenous nations with respect and equality. Lofty pledges about a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state do not mean the government will not resort to old tricks.
It is important to remember that apologies do not come from nowhere but are often the result of years of strategic political resistance and mobilization from Indigenous nations and organizations. In Taiwan, Indigenous people have struggled for years to preserve their culture, language and traditional territory and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.
Decolonization is a complex and ongoing process, with effects that last for generations. On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we celebrate the resilience of Indigenous peoples that make historic apologies, such as the one in Taiwan possible. We also recognize much more work needs to be done in holding governments accountable to their words and ensuring that they live up to the spirit of truth and reconciliation they profess.