Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Formosa Aborigines Betrayed Again

Articles may be considered worthwhile for two opposing reasons. Either they tell us something hitherto unfamiliar to us; or they confirm our beliefs that situations in other parts of the world aren't very different from our own.
There’s nothing new or unfamiliar about aborigines getting betrayed by powerful elitists. I’m descended from two Native American groups: the Eastern Band of Cherokees and an Eastern Sioux grouping who was assimilated before there was a Bureau of Indian Affairs. During the 1830’s, to satisfy the greed of mainly northern investors, an estimated 17,000 Cherokees were rounded up and forced to travel in the dead of winter to the present state of Oklahoma. Some 4,000 died along the way.

Aboriginal inhabitants throughout the world can tell similar stories. Many of these stories are ongoing and, for whatever reason, they are either unreported or under-reported in what passes for a news media. Several aboriginal groups live in Taiwan.
As in the previous article, I feel I must defend my use of the word betrayed. As I said before, that word implies a deliberate violation of trust. For the purpose of this article, I must show either malicious intent or callous indifference by a person or people in positions of public trust.
About four decades ago, Taiwanese aborigines sought work in Taipei. Since they couldn’t afford housing in Taipei, they settled on river islands along the wetlands outside of the city. They built their homes from whatever discarded materials they could find. As I cross the bridge going into the city, I can still see gardens on some of these islands.
From time to time, rains were heavier than usual and their homes were damaged and destroyed. Each time this happened, they found other discarded materials, rebuilt their homes and replanted their gardens.
I should note at this point that the doctrine of adverse possession (also called squatter’s rights) is as established in Taiwanese culture and Chinese culture as it is in the West. The aboriginal use of this land was as common law requires: actual, open, exclusive, continuous, and hostile. As a legal doctrine, it’s so well known, even to laymen, that it’s mentioned in Chinese novels dating from the late Ming and early Ch’ing dynasties.
In 2007, the mayor of Taipei was Ma Ying-jeou, who had received a doctorate in juridical science from Harvard University. Without regard for the aborigines’ legal and moral right to the land that nobody else wanted—except that the aboriginal houses spoiled the view from the bicycle trails Ma was promoting—Mayor Ma told them they’d have to leave the land. Without regard for the fact that they had lived there for four decades, the excuse he gave was that it wasn’t safe for them. He—not the homeowners—would decide for them what was safe.
The City of Taipei would provide “low-cost” housing for them that would still be more costly than they could afford. On December 8, 2007, in a speech oozing with unction, Ma told the assembled aborigines, “I see you as humans and as citizens of this city. I'm going to educate you well and do a good job of providing you with opportunities. That's the place from which the attitude of aborigines needs to be adjusted. Now that you've come here, you need to play by the rules here...." (For this disgusting story of arrogance and perfidy, click here.)
Excuse me, but I don’t think they needed an over-privileged elitist to inform them that they were human; they already knew it. They didn’t need the government to take care of them; they’d been taking care of themselves and each other for 40 years. They didn’t need to move from their land and play by someone else’s rules. They already had their land and they lived perfectly well by their own rules. They certainly didn’t need to adjust their attitudes; Ma Ying-jeou needed to adjust his attitude.
Now Ma Ying-jeou is the president of Taiwan—except when a Chinese bureaucrat comes to town. Then he’s “Mr. Ma,” groveling like a eunuch before his Chinese master and pushing the "Taiwanese redneck" protesters out of sight. Though Ma’s office has changed, his attitude toward aborigines hasn’t.
In early August 2009, Mr. or President (or whatever) Ma’s popularity stood at Olympian levels, having recently won a presidential election with 58% of the vote, mainly from women voters. Politicians all over Taiwan wanted to be seen with him and have their photos taken with him. Then came Typhoon Morakot on August 6-7. Now he’s only a little more popular than a turd in a swimming pool; people can’t get away from him quickly enough.

What happened? Aboriginal villages in central Taiwan suffered some of the worst flooding and mudslides in memory. With lives on the line and every hour crucial, Ma dawdled for three days. For three days, his administration didn’t call out the military to help, as is customary in Taiwan. (By contrast, when the 9/21 Earthquake struck Taiwan in 1999, President Lee called out the military just 20 minutes after receiving the news.)
For three days, while more than 500 people were buried, and thousands of others were stranded, Ma’s administration refused other countries’ offers of rescue assistance. Many people to this day believe that the delays were due to Ma’s reluctance to offend China by acting like the president of a sovereign state. (Click here.)
Around 700 people were killed as a result of the typhoon, the flooding, and the mudslides. Prompt action probably could have saved many of them. In Taiwan Matters, we read this result from a poll conducted after this shameless episode:
"A survey released by pro-blue, 100% Chinese-funded TVBS says that Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's approval rating is now at 16 percent following his inept and deadly response to Typhoon Morakot, which began battering Taiwan on August 7, 2009, leaving a village with approximately 500 people with approximately 500 people buried in a gargantuan mudslide, thousands stranded--some for over a week--and tens of thousands inundated by deep flooding." [Note: In Taiwan, it's illegal for a foreign company to own majority interest in a broadcasting station. The last time I checked, TVBS's ownership was 49% Hong Kong (a colony of Beijing) and 51% Taiwanese. Oh, the Taiwanese company has the same address as the Hong Kong company. What a coincidence!]
Now it’s 2010, and aborigines are still suffering at the hands of the Ma administration. Most of them can’t go home again to their ancestral lands. (Click here.)
The aborigines claim that the government is forcing them to move to the lowlands. The gaff-prone Premier Wu Den-yih claims that no one is forcing the Aborigines to move. That depends on what the meaning of the word force is. Roads to certain villages are not being rebuilt. Bridges are not being rebuilt. Aborigines are receiving assistance if they move but not if they try to stay on their land.
The central government has built housing widely scattered about in low-lying areas. This scattering of houses, as well as their locations, aborigines say, is tearing apart their social fabric. Moreover, in the mountains they lived close to nature. Even this is being taken from them.
Even the do-gooders are shafting the aborigines. The Red Cross, to their credit, is working with them as well as they know how. The Buddhist Tzi Chi Foundation, which I’d always respected, has blown it. They’ve provided housing, but it was built without regard for the aboriginal way of life. To add insult to injury, it’s a conspicuously Buddhist environment; Taiwan’s Bunun people (aborigines) are disproportionately Christian.
Oh, and let’s not forget that many of the aborigines have found jobs. They’ve been offered jobs making handcrafts for tourists.
Premier Wu, echoing Ma’s sentiments from December 2007, says that their traditional villages weren’t safe; that they were prone to landslides. The aborigines say that the land didn’t become unstable until the central government widened the roads and made other changes in the environment. Now, doesn’t that one sound familiar?

In case you’re wondering, Wu wasn’t the premier during the Typhoon Morakot debacle. Wu was appointed premier in September 2009, after Ma’s entire cabinet resigned to take the rap for Ma’s Morakot-related failures. Ma’s political career is littered with the ruined ambitions of loyal subordinates who had taken the fall for him.
I suspect that Ma has exceeded the late movie villain Victor Buno in the number of times he has effected an escape by, figuratively speaking, pushing a loyal subordinate under a bus.

The issue isn’t all that complicated. The aborigines want to go home. Is it all that difficult for Ma and Wu to understand? Or perhaps they fail to grasp the full meaning of Ma’s condescending remark, “I see you as human.” If they did, they would treat them as human beings should be treated.

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