A ruling by the Constitutional Court on October 28 proved a win for the unrecognized Siraya people, one of the “Pingpu” or “Plains Indigenous” peoples currently not recognized as Indigenous by the Taiwanese government. The ruling specifies that legal changes to allow for recognition of the Siraya and other Indigenous groups will need to be made in the next three years.
The implications of the ruling could be wide-ranging, seeing as close to 1 million may qualify as Pingpu according to some estimates. This means around 4 percent of Taiwan’s population may newly be able to qualify for Indigenous legal status as a result of the ruling. Currently, an estimated 580,000 people in Taiwan have Indigenous legal status. The recognition of the Pingpu could triple the legally registered Indigenous population, and raise the number of legally registered Indigenous in Taiwan from around 2 percent to around 6 percent of the population.
This shift could potentially have a large impact on the current electoral system, in which Indigenous people vote for six seats allotted to Indigenous candidates in the legislature. Indigenous politicians currently cannot run for the 73 district-level seats, where voters choose one candidate to represent a geographic constituency. Instead, they must either run for the six seats reserved for Indigenous candidates or the 34 seats allocated through proportional representation, where voters select a party and the parties fill seats based on their vote share.
Last month’s ruling came after more than a decade of lawsuits. The ruling overturned a previous ruling against the Siraya by the Taipei High Administrative Court in 2016, with the case having been filed by 112 Siraya people led by Tainan Siraya Culture Association director Uma Talavan against the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) in 2012. Previously, the Siraya were allowed to register as Indigenous by the Tainan city government in 2009, but this was overturned by the CIP. The CIP also rejected an attempt by the Siraya to register as Indigenous in 2012.
The case worked its way to the Constitutional Court in 2020. All 15 grand justices on the Constitutional Court were unanimous in their decision, which is a rare occurrence.
In recent years, the Siraya have fronted the lawsuit for Pingpu recognition due to being the largest Pingpu group. Historically, Pingpu groups were denied recognition as Indigenous due to the claim that their cultures had been nearly completely Sinicized, and so they should be treated separately from “Mountain” Indigenous peoples, who were seen as having preserved their cultural way of life in spite of colonization.
That being said, cultural revitalization efforts by the Siraya and other Pingpu groups have been ongoing for decades. Siraya groups have criticized their being denied Indigenous status on the grounds that this denies them their culture and continues Han colonization.
Indigenous status is granted to those descended from Indigenous people who registered in 1956, 1957, 1959, or 1963 with local governments. By contrast, the ancestors of those from unrecognized Pingpu groups did not register with the government.
Consequently, while the government previously offered to create a new status for Pingpu as “Pingpu Indigenous peoples,” this was rejected by Siraya activists in favor of pushing for full recognition as Indigenous. The government claimed that more resources would be devoted to Pingpu cultural preservation and revitalization efforts through this new status.
The Tsai administration has been more proactive than past presidential administrations on Indigenous issues. President Tsai Ing-wen, who has an Indigenous grandmother, made a historic apology to Indigenous peoples on behalf of the state in August 2016. That being said, Tsai has also faced years of protest by Indigenous activists for failing to carry out a campaign promise to return traditional Indigenous territories to their communities. The Tsai administration has only returned land that was in public hands, but not privately owned land.
Likewise, much of the pushback against Pingpu recognition came from recognized Indigenous groups, including politicians who are part of the Tsai administration, and the CIP. Among those to argue against Pingpu recognition is Icyang Parod, the head of the CIP. Eight Taitung city councilors have also taken a stance against the decision, calling for a body to oversee Pingpu groups separately from similar bodies as the CIP and Hakka Affairs Council. The CIP has opposed Pingpu recognition for three decades.
Many of the arguments against Pingpu recognition seem to return to concerns that widening the scope of who qualifies for Indigenous status will dilute already scarce resources for cultural preservation and revitalization efforts. Likewise, recognized Indigenous groups may be wary of individuals with unverified backgrounds claiming Indigenous status. There is a long history of Han individuals passing themselves off as Indigenous in Taiwan, as well as cultural appropriation, including attempts by Taiwanese nationalists to use indigeneity as a means of distinguishing Taiwan and China.
Following the Constitutional Court decision, some opponents of the ruling claim that the influx of individuals registering as Indigenous will eradicate Indigenous identity and culture. In particular, some Pingpu activists have questioned the figure of 980,000 Pingpu individuals cited by the CIP, taking the view that the number of Pingpu is between 200,000 and 260,000 and that the CIP is using the larger figure to stir up fears.
This is a broader ongoing debate that has been highlighted by not only this ruling, but an April ruling by the Constitutional Court striking down Article 4, Paragraph 2 of the Status Act for Indigenous Peoples. The ruling widened the ability for mixed-race individuals to claim Indigenous status, striking down previous requirements that those with Indigenous status have the surname of their Indigenous parent or take on an Indigenous name. The change is estimated to affect 95,000 individuals
The ruling on mixed-race recognition in April specified a two-year timeline for legal changes to be made. Specifying a window for legal changes to be made to a law ruled as unconstitutional is a tactic that has been adopted by the Constitutional Court regarding a number of issues in recent years, including the legalization of gay marriage. With the mixed-race ruling, if no relevant laws are passed within the specified timeframe, mixed Indigenous-Han individuals will automatically be allowed to claim Indigenous status.
Mixed-race Indigenous activists were critical of the previous provisions. Under the existing rules, any break in Indigenous legal status between generations prevents later descendants from claiming Indigenous status. Furthermore, mixed-race individuals may be pressured to take on a Han last name to carry on the family line, but this results in a loss of their Indigenous status. Mixed-race activists have further been critical of the lack of provisions for individuals who descend from more than one Indigenous group, seeing as it is only possible to be legally registered as a member of one group.
However, Indigenous politicians such as Presidential Office spokesperson Kolas Yotaka took a stand against the decision, arguing that changing one’s name to an Indigenous name was a necessary sign of commitment to Indigenous identity. The concerns from Kolas, who emphasized that she was expressing her view in a private and not official capacity, also seemed to be about unknown individuals claiming Indigenous status and diluting resources.
Consequently, the debate is far from settled after the Pingpu and Siraya recognition ruling. It is to be expected that there will continue to be political contestation regarding the issue in the next three years, particularly regarding the specific legal provisions for Pingpu recognition as Indigenous.