Taipei, June 29 (CNA) The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) has opposed granting the Siraya and other Pingpu tribes constitutionally-protected Indigenous status which entitles the 16 officially recognized Indigenous peoples in Taiwan to specific privileges.
Speaking at a one-day hearing held at the Constitutional Court on Tuesday, CIP Minister Icyang Parod (夷將.拔路兒) said that recognizing Pingpu tribes as Indigenous people will adversely affect the rights enjoyed by those who are currently recognized as Indigenous people, who are estimated to number around 580,000, or 2.5 percent of Taiwan's population.
Icyang Parod appealed to the grand justices to understand that there are "big differences" between the recognized Indigenous people and the Pingpu people, who are generally divided into nine tribes with a total population of around 980,000, according to the CIP.
As with the Indigenous people, the Pingpu people, who live in Taiwan's western areas, also belong to the Austronesian linguistic family which has spread to other parts of Asia and Oceania, but they have not been able to gain Indigenous status mainly because much of their culture has been lost due to assimilation with the majority ethnic Han.
Referring to the "big differences" between Indigenous and Pingpu peoples regarding the degree of assimilation into Han society and culture and exposure to socioeconomic disadvantages, Icyang Parod argued that the constitutionally protected Indigenous rights should be reserved only for the recognized Indigenous people.
Recognized tribes in Taiwan
Taiwan officially recognizes 16 Indigenous tribes as Indigenous people -- Amis, Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun, Pinuyumayan, Rukai, Tsou, Saisiyat, Yami, Thao, Kavalan, Truku, Sakizaya, Sediq, Hla'alua, and Kanakanavu, generally divided into two category -- Highland Indigenous people and Plains Indigenous people -- based on the geographical regions they originally resided in.
The Kavalan are a Pingpu tribe who are the only one with official Indigenous status, though this does not apply to every member of the tribe, only those who registered their Indigenous status within a specific timeframe set by the government.
Over the past three decades, the Siraya, the largest Pingpu tribe, with others being the Kavalan, Ketagalan, Taokas, Pazeh, Papora, Babuza, Hoanya, and Makatau, have been leading the movement for tribe recognition in a bid to revitalize their culture and languages facing the threat of extinction.
Siraya people's fight
The Siraya people won a small step in 2009 when the city government of Tainan, where most of them live, allowed them to apply to register as Indigenous people, but the application was then overruled by the CIP, citing Article 2 of the Status Act For Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous status can only be granted to those who are eligible for Indigenous recognition and who registered with local governments in 1956, 1957, 1959, or 1963, as stipulated in that article and subsequent bylaws, according to the CIP.
Following a separate application for tribal recognition directly with the CIP that was rejected in 2012, 112 Siraya people, led by activist Uma Talavan (萬淑娟), filed a lawsuit against the CIP with Taipei High Administrative Court, embarking on a legal battle that has dragged on for a decade.
The case was referred to the council of grand justices in 2020 by the Taipei High Administrative Court to seek its interpretation of Article 2 of the Status Act For Indigenous Peoples, after the Supreme Administrative Court ordered a retrial of the high court's ruling in favor of the CIP.
"I have long been discriminated against by Han people since my childhood, but our ethnic identity hasn't been recognized," said Uma Talavan, secretary-general of Siraya Culture Association, at a press conference outside the court building. "Without the recognition, life is like a body without a soul."
In accordance with the nation's Additional Articles of the Constitution, Indigenous people are guaranteed six reserved seats in the Legislature -- three for Highland Indigenous people and three for Plains Indigenous people.
Indigenous people also have certain privileges guaranteed by laws and regulations in accordance with the Constitution, including specific reserved seats in city or county councils and lower levels of representative bodies and guaranteed quotas in national exams for civil servants or scholarships.
Council of Indigenous Peoples' arguments
The CIP recognizes that the Siraya tribe is an important part of Taiwan's Indigenous peoples "culturally" and "historically," Icyang Parod told the hearing held to listen to arguments on that article being subject to grand justices' interpretation.
However, that position is different from recognizing the Siraya tribe as Indigenous people constitutionally, he added.
If Pingpu tribes were recognized as Indigenous people in the Plains Indigenous category, the government would have to earmark an additional NT$45 billion (US$1.52 billion) to its Indigenous affairs budget, he said.
The rights of the Plains Indigenous people, with a population of about 270,000, would be greatly affected, he added.
In response to the demand for tribe recognition by Pingpu people, the government proposed in 2017 that they be listed as "Pingpu Indigenous people," a new category under the Status Act For Indigenous Peoples.
The proposal, according to Icyang Parod, would be a legal recognition of Pingpu tribes and require the government to continuously invest in preserving the heritage of Pingpu tribes, but this alternative to constitutionally protected Indigenous status was not accepted by Pingpu community.
Tainan Mayor Huang Wei-che (黃偉哲), who was present at the court hearing, said that ethnicity is something that is inherent in the lineages of Indigenous people and cannot be denied or deprived of by a state setting deadlines for registration.
The related laws that set a precondition of registration during certain periods for recognition of ethnicity identity "apparently run against the right to equality to all enshrined by the Constitution," Huang said via a press release.
Meanwhile, eight members of Taitung County Council who represent Plains and Highland Indigenous peoples voiced their opposition to Pingpu tribes being characterized as Plains Indigenous people.
Given that the Siraya and other Pingpu tribes have been so closely integrated with Han people, recognizing them as Indigenous people might accelerate the assimilation of Indigenous people into Han society and crowd out the resources designated for the Indigenous people, they said in a statement.
They suggested that Pingpu tribes demand the government create a separate agency that can be equivalent to CIP for Indigenous people or the Hakka Affairs Council for Hakka, to take care of the needs of Pingpu tribes.
The Constitutional Court will announce in one month's time a later date to present its ruling.