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Tribal Self-Government & Taiwan’s UN Bid

Published: September 16, 2007, Author: MHirch

The government of Taiwan seeks to reenter as a full member of the United Nations giving the People’s Republic of China heartburn. Meanwhile, thirteen tribes as the original occupants of the contentious island seek to exercise self-government in accord with their recognized rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN General Assembly 13 September 2007). Each of these nations seeks to undertake government-to-government negotiations with Taipei. They want to govern their own territories and peoples as they did before the Han came to occupy their lands in 1949. The Han population dominates the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, but there are more than sixty-five different indigenous nationalities on the mainland and on the island seeking the power of self-government inside or outside the framework of the existing state. Two states and sixty-five non-state parties are heading down a path that must necessarily involve them all–deciding how their territories and each of their peoples will be governed.

Both the Taipei government (ROC) and the Bejing government (PRC) seek to affirm sovereignty and gain international recognition for sovereign control over territories. These are territories they both claim. There is a more complex story to be told about who has the territories, and who may govern; the original occupants of the land. The Fourth World nations have an affect on the political dimensions of the present debate.

Fourth World nations that seek to exercise their powers of government over their individual territories ought to be equal players in the United Nations debate that will follow Taipei’s petition for membership in March 2008.

Why should they? Well, consider these facts:

The original peoples of the Island of Taiwan are related to Melanesian peoples living in island countries bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the East and the Indian Ocean to the west south of Southeast Asia.

There are Thirteen distinct peoples indigenous to Taiwan whose presence extends back more than five thousand years. In order of population size, these are: Amis/Pangcah (A-mei), Atayal/Da-yen (Tai-ya), Paiwan, Bunun (Bu-nong), Puyuma (Beinan), Rukai (Lu-kai), Tsou, Saisiyat (Sai-xia), Tao/Yami (Da-wu / Ya-mei), Ita Thao (Shao), Kavalan (Ge-ma-lan), and the Taroko/Truku (Tai-lü-ge), recognized just recently. The people indigenous to Taiwan have lived on the island for at least five thousand years.

Ericsson argues in his Harvard Asia Quarterly article (Creating “Indian Country” In Taiwan? 2005) that the other inhabitants of the Island now include Ben-sheng ren, descendents of Chinese settlers from the 1600s to the present, the Wai-sheng ren, Mainlanders who were survivors or descendents of those who fled mainland China after 1949 and the Ke-jia-ren, known as the Hakka community that migrated from the mainland of China since the 1600s and then the other indigenous Taiwanese known as the Yuan-zhu min-zu who are descendents of Malay/Polynesian settlers arriving on the island about a thousand years ago. The indigenous peoples of Taiwan make up almost 2% of the overall population. They are the majority populations in their own territories. Most of what is now called Taiwan is occupied by these Fourth World nations. the settler populations occupy Tiapei and other large cities.

The Taiwan/People’s Republic of China/Fourth World nations political tug-of-war is roughly analogous to the Canada/United Kingdom/Fourth World nations struggle that came to a fever pitch beginning in 1968 and continues to this day. In both instances we have Fourth World nations governed under authority established by settler populations who draw their legitimacy from powers originating with their homeland country.

Like Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968, Taipei’s President Chen Shui-bian seeks legitimacy from an outside power to affirm his government’s right of self-government. In 1968 Canada existed under powers provided by the British North American Act of 1763 and was required to seek British Parliamentary and Privy Council consent for its governmental actions. The People’s Republic of China would like Chen’s Taipei to act like a rump Canada.

Trudeau wasn’t satisfied with leading a country that lacked all of the powers of an independent state, so he decided to “go to England to return Canada’s Constitution.” This was a way of suggesting that Canada had a constitution lying about somewhere and all that was need was for the Prime Minister to go and pick it up. In fact, Trudeau was obliged to go before the British Parliament to request that body to enact legislation conveying governmental powers to Canada and relinquish those same powers in Britain. As Trudeau feverishly ran about trying to persuade everyone that Canada was really just making a minor adjustment in its governance, instead of having to secure its independence from the United Kingdom the First Nations stirred to attention and demanded that their territories be protected from Canada by Britain. Canada claimed all of the territories originally occupied by the First Nations…they would have none of that. Only a small part of what Canada claimed as its domain was actually Canada under treaties concluded between Britain and the First Nations. Two thirds of what Canada claimed as its domain, was in fact tribal territories.

In April 1982 Canada became an independent state in fact, but the territorial questions concerning First Nation ownership remain unresolved. Canada is sloppily attempting to confiscate tribal lands through phony treaty negotiations (going on now 15 years), but most First Nations are not being taken in. The result is that Canada’s claim on vast oil, mineral, timber, water, fisheries and other resources remain under a cloud that First Nations hold the key to resolving. The First Nations general assert that such lands and resources belong to them, not to Canada.

Taiwan may want to pretend as did Canada that the Fourth World nations question can be resolved after independence. The Peoples Republic of China might pretend as did Canada that the Fourth World question can be swept under the rug (note Tibet, Uygur, Manchuria, the Mio and Hmong questions inside China’s claimed territory).

For Taiwan and Canada and the People’s Republic of China much depends on the actions of Fourth World nations. If they are proactive in defense of their interests against domination and occupation by a foreign state they will contribute to a significant change in the nature of international relations. If they fail to act, they will contribute to a kind of violence that has long been done to Fourth World nations.

The United Nations can play an important role by demanding that all interested parties have an equal voice in the debate over Taiwanese recognition. The UN and perhaps one or two other international parties should serve as negotiation guarantors. Fourth World nations in Taiwan must be given a full and complete voice. They should press for that voice as well.

UPDATE: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon rejected Taiwan’s petition for membership in the UN leaving the issue to be considered by the UN General Assembly. The Secretary General’s position is that “Taiwan is an integral part of the PRC.” The United States is in a pickle because of its own desire to maintain a deliberate ambiguity over the status of Taiwan.

(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies

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