Sunday, September 01, 2013

The BOT at Sun Moon Lake: Wrong and injurious (中文 link at bottom)

Plans to build a hotel on ancestral Aborigine land at Sun Moon Lake once again highlight the rapacious nature of the government-developer complex and its utter disregard for people’s rights and dignity

The shamans lined up in front of us, their colorful uniforms contrasting starkly with the drab Environmental Protection Administration building behind them. Dipping their fingers in paper cups, they began chanting incantations — an exorcism — and sprayed the alcohol-fragrant water at our feet. It was, needless to say, one of those moments that gives one a certain frisson.

They were Thao Aborigines, members of one of Taiwan’s smallest tribes. Dozens of them, from the about 700 alive today, filled two buses on Friday to come petition the government and to attend a “consultation” meeting at the EPA, where the fate of their ancestral land on Hsiangshan (向山) was to be decided.

One of the shamans bursts in anger during the exorcism
Here was yet another of Taiwan’s vulnerable groups facing the nexus of government, investors, land developers — and in this case tourism organizations — that seek to expropriate their land for the sake of “modernity.” In the present case, the plan is to erect a 300-room-plus hotel resort and banquet hall smack on the mountaintop, ancestral Thao land. The build-operate-transfer (BOT), which will be funded by Hong Kong’s Bonds Group (寶聲集團), the firm that was awarded the contract in 2009, is part of ongoing efforts to further transform the once-beautiful Sun Moon Lake area into an hodgepodge of hotels, motor boats, and rowdy Chinese tourists.

Appeals for reason, or for the law, have failed, something that under the current administration has sadly become the norm. This is Thao ancestral land, and under the law, permission — through consultations with the tribe — must be granted by the Thao before anyone can use parts of their land for development. But here’s the catch: the central government has never formalized the Thao claims to that land. Therefore, Article 21 of the Aboriginal Basic Act (原住民基本法), which stipulates the requirement for consultations, doesn’t apply. Or so claims the government, which has conveniently dragged its feet in granting the recognition that would have made Article 21 relevant. One should note the terrible irony in this: Aborigines who inhabited that land well before the government came into existence must receive recognition of their rights to their land from the latter, which denies such recognition so that it need not consult the members of the tribe before it can bring in investment (and more Chinese tourists, who have been unwilling to pay the higher rates at existing hotels around the lake).

Tribal elder delivers a speech
As always, the authorities, acting very much like their cousins across the Taiwan Strait, pretend to follow the law and go through the motions. But this is all show. They make the law or interpret it as they see fit, and then accuse critics and opponents of being “irrational” or “violent.” A meeting between developers and Thao elders that is alleged to have taken place, for example, has yielded permissions that the Thao are adamant were never given.

Friday’s assessment was also a travesty. The members of the evaluation committee — all eight of them “Han” — unanimously (with one abstention) gave “conditional” approval to the project. The developers must secure permission to proceed with the 50-year BOT plan through the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP), a government body made solely of political appointees who work hand in glove with the KMT. In other words, consultations will not occur between the Thao whose land is being taken, but rather through the CIP on their behalf, which assures us of one thing alone: the project will be approved.

To add insult to injury, the developers maintain that the project will create jobs for local Thao people — as servants, waiters, and “entertainers.” Translation: I steal your land, but I am magnanimous and generous enough to treat you like a circus animal.

Sadness and pain
Ultimately, this is not an Aboriginal issue; this is a land issue just like the many others that Taiwan’s most vulnerable, all over the country, are facing, and about which I have written over the past several months. Sadly, the victims in this case are from a segment of society that tends to generate little interest in mainstream media. The scarce coverage on Friday was proof of this. If only for self-interested reasons, non-Aborigines, or Aborigines from other tribes, had better not only pay close attention to what goes on at Sun Moon Lake, but should join the fight as well.

After the EPA meeting concluded on Friday, the Thao made the following promise: 如果你們的文明是叫我們卑躬屈膝, 那我就帶你們驕傲的野蠻到底. If civilization means humiliation and slavery, I would have them see the pride of the savages!

I would disagree with one thing: It isn’t the Thao who are the savages. (All photos by the author)

NEW! Chinese version available here.

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