Cancun. Rome. Dallas. Summer calls to mind countless images of beaches, campfires, and carefree cut-offs, but none of those images are found in the jungles of Southern Taiwan's Tainan County. Delve deeper into the thickets of bamboo and mango trees and one may find Khau-pi village in Xinhua Town. This remote clearing in the rolling mountains of Taiwan is where I have chosen to spend my summer vacation, and it is here that I have discovered the Siraya. The Siraya tribe is an indigneous tribe of Taiwan, belonging to the Pingpu peoples (low-land indigenous peoples), that is not officially recognized by the national KMT government. A thorough history of the Siraya and their struggles would require writing a book (and there are some for any who are interested), but my immediate goal is to attract attention to the current atrocities that have befallen this humble people. Of course the problems originate with the tribe's lack of official status. There are fourteen aboriginal tribes in Taiwan that are recognized by the government and therefore receive specified benefits and are granted certain protections. Although the Siraya have been protesting, appealing, and fighting the government for years with no success, they are still denied the protection of their basic rights including a right to property.
In 1920 a portion of the land inhabited by the Siraya (what they continue to call their "ancestral land" despite the illegality of this term due to a lack of official recognition) was given to the Tsiong Shing University by the national Taiwanese government (KMT). The Siraya farms and settlements predate the transfer, but the Siraya have never had legal ownership of the land. The government claimed the land as its own and then made the Tsiong Shing University the official manager of the land, therefore the university had the power to do what it pleased concerning the use of the land after 1920. When this occurred the Siraya who occupied said land were never notified, and many continued to believe that the land belonged to them. As recent at 2009 the Siraya discovered that their land was not in fact in their possession. Then in June 2010 the first family was notified by court order that they must vacate their home by June 29, 2011-- the day their house would be demolished and the land would be used by the university. Although the university has owned the land since 1920, they had allowed the Siraya to continue living in their community. Yet, now the university has made the decision that it wants to use their land for their agricultural department.
By the end of the demolitions approximately 35 Siraya families will lose their homes or parts of their homes. This does not include the four temples that are located on the land being claimed and cleared by the university and a collection of other families that will be losing their homes that are not part of the Siraya tribe. Of the 35 Siraya families about 20 have been living on their plots for generations reaching back up to 150 years. The remain 15 Siraya residences were more recently established. I'll include some of the personal stories of these families because it is of the utmost importance that people realize these are not just buildings lost, but lives, life savings, retirement funds, and land that has cultural significance as the site of a full-blown heritage revitalization campaign.
One man bought land from his uncle to build himself and his family a home. The uncle sold his nephew half his plot, so the nephew was able to build a house adjoining his uncle's house. Neither man knew of the university's claim to part of this plot. Now the university has notified the uncle that part of his house will be demolished and he must leave. Only a portion of the uncle's house is located within the university's boundary, and the uncle has responded by forcing his nephew out of the adjoining home so that the uncle may still have a place to live while the nephew will become homeless.
The situation is desperate, but also very strange because in several cases only bits and pieces of buildings run over the boundary and lay on the university's plot. In these cases the university is only demolishing parts of these homes. In one specific case the university has claimed 1/4 of a building.
Another man recently retired spend his life's savings on building a new home for himself on his plot. In past years the university told people who wanted to build on their land (land that is official owned and managed by the university) that construction would only be allowed if the new building replaced an old building and was no larger than the old structure. However, the university recently changed its policy to claim all structures that are on university land regardless of whether or not these buildings were approved by the university in past years. The retired man built his new house according to all the university's constraints and regulations and followed all the rules he was given. Now after his new home as been completed and his savings completely depleted the university has informed him that his home will be demolished.
In another case a family that had been previously living in a flood plain moved to higher ground where they would no longer be in danger. Yet they unknowingly moved onto land that was owned by the university, and now their house is set to be torn down.
Uma Talavan, chairwoman of the Siraya Culture Association, drove through the Siraya village photographing and interviewing people whose homes were marked for demolition, and in some cases she encountered people who had not received court notices yet and were unaware of their impending fate. One elderly woman has been reportedly crying every night since realizing her life was being uprooted and her home taken from beneath her feet. This elderly woman is one of the few who still worships at a traditional Siraya shrine, and she will soon lose this as well.
One light in the darkness is the willingness of the Tainan County Government to support the Siraya in their fight against the national government. The county has been very cooperative, however even with the support of the local government the University is supported by the national government and both have chosen to continue with demolition despite local outcries.
Struggling to present a strong argument against university and KMT government, the Siraya have been collecting historical documents that prove their existence on this land long before the university laid claim to it. Some documents even date back to the era of Japanese colonialism. A map from 1904 shows the Siraya settlements and farms already established and spreading. Some families still have the deeds to their plots passed down generations. One 82 year-old woman's family has been living here since 1886, and now she is being forced out of a home that has provided safety and stability for generations. Yet, based on the past actions of the government it can be safely assumed that the KMT does not care about the Siraya tribe, and therefore it is of the utmost importance that the Siraya can gain the support of influential organizations or people. They must draw on local, national, and international resources to present a united front against this enemy that threatens their endangered way of life.
Protecting this land is not only about ensuring the safety and livelihood of 35 families, this fight transcends the physical and will impact the Siraya mentally, emotionally, and culturally. Khau-pi's Siraya is already struggling to prove to the world that they are emerging from the darkness as a thriving community that has embraced its traditional heritage. Current culture campaigns aim to restore the Siraya language to its former glory and resurrect customs that were once lost. In this category the Siraya have enjoyed great success, but there is still much work to be done.
What is this all about?!
Saving Siraya is a blog dedicated to the protection of a Taiwanese indigenous tribe that is not officially recognized by the government and therefore denied of basic human rights.
Due to the demands of Zhong Xing University and the Taiwanese national government, starting JUNE 29th, 2011 Siraya homes will be demolished and families already suffering from poverty will become homeless. After demolition the university intends to use the land for its agricultural department.
Approximately 20 Siraya families will be affected, some of which have lived on this ancestral land for up to 150 years.
See "Saving Siraya" for a detailed post on the Siraya's situation.
** UPDATE: A recent meeting between Zhong Xin University representatives, the Tainan City mayor, city councillors, and Siraya representatives has resulted in an agreement. The city government has been granted three months to prepare documents proving that Siraya settlements predate 1920. These documents will be signed by the mayor and will thereby protect ancestral land from further disruption. The university agrees to cooperate once these documents have been approved by the Tainan City mayor! Court hearings and demolitions have been postponed three months accordingly.