Interview: Savungaz Valincinan

Savungaz Valincinan was until recently a worker in the DPP and was inside the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. The following interview was conducted on October 18th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  Why did you begin participating in social movements? What kind of issues did you participate in and for what reason?

Savungaz Valincinan:  It doesn’t seem to have been from any set point in time. It was a process. I began from indigenous issues, because I’m half and half. My father is waishengren and my mother is Bunun. Only in high school, did I start to think about my indigenous identity. Although I always knew I was my mother was indigenous and what my Bunun name was, when I began to realize I was an indigenous myself was in high school.

In college, because people have more more time to explore their identities, I began to look into it to try and know my identity better. That way, I discovered that there were many issues related to indigenous issues, and I started to understand and care about these issues. But with regards to direct participation, that probably began in 2012.

Savungaz Valincinan. Photo credit: Liberty Times

In 2011, after the Wild Strawberry Movement, there began to be some social movement groups at National Cheng Kung University, such as the 02 Society. In 2011, I also formed an indigenous group at National Cheng Kung University.

From then on, because we had collaborators, we were able to participate in activities together. From campus issues to directly participating in events may have been the Shilin Wang family incident, and the anti-Miramar movement. These were large turning points.

So it was a slow process of exploration, but if you need to find a point of when I directly began to participate in protests, it may been that NCKU had plans for corporatization. We believed that this was the commodification of education, so many people began to form reading groups and discuss this issue, and protest against the school. Afterwards, it was participating in protests against the construction of the Miramar Resort Hotel.

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing at the time of 318?

Savungaz Valincinan:  Before 318, people were demonstrating against the CSSTA. These people were working together with us on different issues, including on raises in tuition, indigenous issues, the anti-Miramar protests, and the anti-nuclear movement. We came to know each other on the streets and, through different inter school activities, developed connections. We established inter-school organizations, such as the Anti-Commercialization of Education Association, which we established in 2012 or 2013.

When this group of people was working on the anti-CSSTA movement, I wasn’t a core participant, but I worked together with them. On 318, we planned to have an action, but that action became a large-scale occupation, which wasn’t in anyone’s expectations. But often in social movements, we are hoping to draw attention, so we might take direct action, We discussed that we would try charging the Legislative Yuan, to express our anger, and we actually got in and were able to occupy the assembly chambers. After this broke out, there was no going back. It was an unexpected set of circumstances.

Brian Hioe:  I see. I also charged then.

Savungaz Valincinan:  We were all like, “Forget about it! Let’s just charge!” back then. And there was no going back. But what I think is interesting is that through the course of the entire anti-CSSTA movement, what people were most upset about was the China factor. During the entire occupation, what was most discussed was the China factor. This seems to have a large relation to Taiwanese history, because if you discuss identity, you will lead to divisions. So to attract the largest amount of support, we continued to emphasize the black box, and the issue of improper process.

We discussed this directly during a meeting. That to attract the most public support, we should discuss the issue this way. But this is something that I think is a bit of a pity.

What’s a pity is that it’s very rare to have this opportunity to directly discuss how young people look at China’s relation to Taiwan. We shrank back from this. This is even more so for indigenous issues, since in this anti-CSSTA, we didn’t discuss these issues of how social relations and the structure of society led to various means by which economics was damaging to our people. Without discussing these issues, it’s hard to discuss how this movement related to our lives individually.

Brian Hioe:  What kind of activities did you participate in during the Sunflower Movement? I heard you were in the Legislative Yuan then.

Savungaz Valincinan:  During the first few days, we helped out on the first floor. In the beginning, it was very chaotic. But apart from people coming in and wanting to express their views, some people also wanted to cause chaos. On the second floor, there was a point to enter and exit, since there was a route in and out there. I helped organize the young people there.

In my experience, I knew that in social movements, its very easy for information to be miscommunicated or for participants to become hurt in their participation in movements. As such, what I hoped to do on the second floor was to allow everyone to find their own place. To allow everyone to become a group that was connected, rather than a group that was off doing their own thing. I worked more on maintaining this relation between people.

But as towards any concrete contribution to the movement, I rejected pursuing this. Because I felt that spending all this time discussing what should be presented in front of the media tomorrow wasn’t important for me. From my experience in social movements, I believe that accommodating personal relations is what is most important in social movements.

Because there’s no way that one movement could change all of society. So how to ensure that the people that participate this time will stand up again in the future? Or to become the people that lead the next movement and to plant the seeds of that? So I thought it was more important to pay attention to participants in the movement, particularly newcomers. So during the movement, I was focused on taking care of the second floor as a space.

What is interesting about the Sunflower Movement is that it all began from individual organization, or single-issue movements, or young people concerned with social issues. But during the Sunflower Movement, this led to a number of young people who weren’t so concerned with social movements, who weren’t social movement participants. This caused them to feel a sense of crisis and led them to feel that this is a time that young people should stand up. Many participants who didn’t have social movement experience were among the participants.

Brian Hioe:  During the movement, were there any points at which you disagreed with the decisions made by the core decision making body? For example, regarding 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan.

Savungaz Valincinan:  Regarding 323 and 324, we often in social movement spheres feel that—I went to college in Tainan and in Tainan, we often emphasize taking into account the feelings of our other participants in social movements and being mentally prepared. But because things take place in Taipei very quickly, in the Sunflower Movement, you can see that under mentally unprepared conditions, this grew to become a very large movement.

When people were brought to the Legislative Yuan, there were people that led them there. People called on people to go and occupy the Executive Yuan together. But I believe that this was very irresponsible. Within movement participation, we would accommodate everyone by telling people before that what might take place when they encountered the police, including possibly being attacked by the police. Are you prepared for that mentally?

Indigenous Youth Front activity in Taipei Main Station. Photo credit: 原住民族青年陣線/Facebook

We found that this group of people who were brought to the Executive Yuan, more than half weren’t mentally prepared. Afterwards, confronting the severe clashes that broke out, this was very mentally hurtful. And the connection of this action with the aims of the movement wasn’t taken care of very well. It looked, under the ungenerous interpretation of the media, as though this was an activity to blow off steam. This was a very frightening thing. That it didn’t affect the aims of the movement and hurt many people individually. It also broke trust between people.

So from the beginning, it was something that I opposed, but looking back, seeing as the situation was so tense then and the movement was so large-scale, under uncontrolled circumstances, could we prepare everyone mentally as we did before during smaller-scale social movements? I believe that we didn’t do enough back then, but how much can we actually do? It’s very hard to say, because there were so many people, and people came and went fluidly.

To be sure, everyone has to take responsibility for their own mental state, but coming to the occupation with their different views and expectations, I think organizers taken as leaders or individuals whose opinions are influential should be firmly oversight. It’s a question of whether we forgot some core values in the movement.

Brian Hioe:  What about the decision to withdraw?

Savungaz Valincinan:  There’s not much to say there. At that time, I rejected participating in meetings personally, but I actually knew before, since we all knew each other. Before the meeting that day, people were saying that they were probably going to discuss withdrawing that day. We didn’t think that it would be so fast. I remember that this decision seemed to have been made one or two days before the meeting took place.

I don’t remember the timeframe exactly, because it’s been a long time. Chen Wei-Ting came to the second floor and reported this to everybody. I only asked him one thing then which was, “Is it that you can’t keep going?” He said. “Yes. Somewhat.” I knew that these partners in the movement had endured much mental pressure, being filmed by cameras all day, and having no time to rest. Or being pursued by the media constantly and the direction of the news constantly changing every day. And a lot of maliciousness.

So I believe that it’s just that. If you can’t take anymore, you can’t take any more. Do you want to push on until someone dies? Is that success for the movement? Because we know that are working for aims in the long-term.

When Chen Wei-Ting said that he felt there was no way he could keep going, I said, “Okay, I can accept this.” There was no need to discuss this further, making some decision or deliberation later. It was reality that everyone was tired. But many people on the second floor felt that this decision did not meet expectations and everyone was very angry, so we decided that we would withdraw. We didn’t want a hero’s welcome and to withdraw heroically in front of the public, so we wrote a statement expressing the position of the second floor, and we decided when and where to withdraw. We came down from the ladder on the second floor.

Brian Hioe:  I was actually watching that outside. [Laughs]

Savungaz Valincinan:  We felt this was expressing our view, because in this movement, there were many different people. These core participants may have worked very hard, but never forget that the movement is not the accomplishment of organizers, but the people’s expectations. We were holding up everyone’s expectations to accomplish change in society, not to gain credit for anyone individually.

Brian Hioe:  What kind of relation do you think that Taiwanese identity has on your participation in Taiwanese social movements such as the Sunflower Movement? Because looking at the Sunflower Movement, I think the mainstream was Han in orientation.

Savungaz Valincinan:  From the first and second day, I didn’t believe that the Sunflower Movement was a mainstream social movement. I believe that issues of sovereignty are relative to begin with. For example, for Europeans or Americans, we are “Asians.” For Asians, we’re “Taiwanese.” It’s relative in terms of who you are talking to. And this is shifting.

For other indigenous, I’m “Bunun.” But for you, I’m “indigenous”. It’s sort of like that. What I want to say is that when we first entered the Legislative Yuan, the indigenous young people started to organize outside and we hoped to concretely discuss through the Indigenous Youth Front. To show what the point of view of indigenous young people participating in the Sunflower Movement was. What our views were.

We also targeted our legislators and the Council of Indigenous Affairs, holding several press conferences, and we also organized discussion of the movement among Taiwanese indigenous young people. I can only say that this society is still very homogenized in terms of representation. So in discussions after 318 or in pictures of the Sunflower Movement, as in pictures or books written about the movement, you cannot see indigenous peoples’ voices. Not even one. Including in photos of the large-scale demonstration on 330.

We got more than 1,000 indigenous in northern Taiwan or who came from southern and central Taiwan to come participate. Young people. Or even not young people, elders. We never thought we were lacking in the movement. And we would never think it was only your movement either. Because Taiwan’s future is everybody’s. But when can this society look back and consider what the social relations internally on this island are? Including having a stronger consensus to confront oppression from outside. This is something that I believe is very important.

Photo credit: 原住民族青年陣線/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there is any political orientation to Taiwanese social movements? Because Taiwanese social movement participants tend to be progressive on a number of issues, ranging from indigenous issues to supporting gay marriage. When I ask people, they tend to say that they are more left-leaning. Do you have any views on this?

Savungaz Valincinan:  I think this is a very interesting question. Because in reality, to some degree, us indigenous that participate in social movements will also be categorized as more left-wing. For example, criticism of the operations of capitalism, or the emphasis on individual freedoms pushed for by neoliberalism resulting on collective harm. But regarding divisions left or right, it’s very hard to discuss more detailed political divisions.

With regards to the sovereignty movement, pursuing equality in discourse or sovereignty or the social status of different ethnic groups, is this a division between left and right? Depending on how left or right are discussed in different countries, sometimes this is the difference between the radicals and the conservatives. In some places, it’s between socialism and capitalism.

So it’s very hard to choose one of two. It depends on what kind of left or right you are talking about. In my life experience, as well as my experience in social movements, the space in between includes indigenous perspective outside of left or right. So it’s not so absolute. But we are categorized as more left-wing by society writ large nonetheless. Because indigenous social values are considered more left by sociology. Does that mean it’s socialism? I think you can’t directly label it that way.

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, how do you think this movement has influenced Taiwanese society? For example, many people discuss this in terms of Ko Wen-Je being elected to office, or Tsai Ing-Wen being elected, or the appearance of the Third Force.

Savungaz Valincinan:  I believe that this is on two levels. I worked in the DPP before and assisted in Tsai’s campaign, but I don’t believe that Tsai being elected can be called social progress. But what I want to say is, because this society wishes for change, that changes means a change in the existing powers. Opposing the KMT, seeing the KMT’s conservative force and past historical wrongs, is what led to the Sunflower Movement.

The Sunflower Movement pulled more people into this current and led more young people to enter political work. This is a form of influence, to be sure, but can we count this as an accomplishment of the movement? I believe that it is a very long road and the Sunflower Movement is merely a point on that road.

And some effects have been magnified on that path, but it’s not that if there was no Sunflower Movement, there could have been no way for our society to reach this point. Or that social reforms were all the accomplishments of the Sunflower Movement. That’s my own view, but some people will think, “Oh, the Sunflower Movement is so great” and etc.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think social movement participants are doing now, three years later? Some people may have entered the political system. Or some people may have gone back to doing what they were doing before. What are your own views and what did you do yourself?

Savungaz Valincinan:  My joining the DPP to work within it isn’t because I strongly support the DPP, its because there happened to be an opportunity. I wanted to use this opportunity to understand what they are doing, to understand how political work differs from what we do in terms of social movement work. I wanted to understand large-scale politics which effects every level of Taiwan. How does it work?

So I set an aim for myself. I decided that if I were to take up this work, I would do this for two years? Why? In 2014, there were preparations for local elections. In 2015, there were preparations for presidential elections. From local elections to central elections, I wanted to experience this complete process and see what it was like. For local elections, I was in Nantou, helping municipal mayoral elections. You can see the ecology of many places and the problems there. And after the end of presidential elections, I left. This was my plan from the beginning.

After going this process, what I have learned most is that we need people in every position. We need people working outside of the system, as well as people working within the system hoping to change it from within. Because people outside can shout all they like, but if nobody is listening to you within the system, they can just ignore you.

Photo credit: 綠魚/Flickr/CC

But how to link together is very important. We can’t neglect one side. Politics is a process that requires a lot of mutual persuasion. Some people believe that this is called compromise, but I believe that if we can improve from 20 points to 60 points, only then can we have the possibility for 60 points to become 100 points, It won’t directly jump from 20 points to 100 points. It can’t jump past this process.

So if we can see this path and clearly ascertain our direction, each position is very important. Only then can people communicate on all levels. I just left the Legislative Yuan, but we still have partners working public sector, in the Legislative Yuan, and in different political parties. I believe that this is very important. We need to know what occurs below the surface, because depending only on the media is very unreliable. Many media reports have already been adjusted or culled. Whether positive or negative. That’s my largest takeaway.

And the people that I saw of my same generation, working there, it seemed that we had a large amount of political agreement. It’s not like in the past that there was the view that politics was a dirty thing. To be sure, it is, but because its dirty, you can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. Because this dirtiness is what continues to influence Taiwanese society. How do we change this?

Even if this just shakes things up, there will be some positive change which results. I believe that is also the largest thing that this generation that participated in the Sunflower Movement learned. Which is that among those who participated in the Sunflower Movement, many began to work in politics, and many returned to their organizations and continued to work, but had gained a better way to engage in dialogue in the future. This is a very good thing.

Before, there was a sense of innocence. Whoever was most innocent was seen as most representative. But now we want to realize change realistically. We don’t want to just chant slogans, or have lofty aims with our movements, we want to have movements which move forward step by step. This is very different.

Brian Hioe:  How do you think China looks at the current political circumstances in Taiwan?

Savungaz Valincinan:  They’ll keep at it! [Laughs] Xi Jinping said right away that he intends strengthen cross-straits unification, one country, two systems, and the 1992 Consensus. But what is more beyond the norm is they also organize peaceful development across the Taiwan Straits. I think this is very interesting. China’s a crazy country, because they have no internal system of oversight. China is not a democracy.

So no matter how you consider how to deal with a country without democracy. I’m not actually sure if you should use country to refer to Taiwan, but either way, how should a democratic society understand an undemocratic society?

What we can do is to allow our internal consensus to become stronger. I don’t believe that this society will only advance. It can also regress. But how to we make certain that, within the domain we can influence, that democracy will not regress?

We should work hard to protect this and to deepen our democracy, because Taiwan’s democracy is still very new and very unstable, as well as very shallow. Our democracy is only discussing elections. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many Asian young people. Everyone seems to envy Taiwan, because they don’t even have equal elections. Taiwan, at the very least, has something called equal, open, and fair elections. Is it really so fair, equal, and open?

Maybe there are issues, but at least in terms of the system, there is equality How do we protect this and allow this to continue to progress? This is something we need to continue to consider. So with all these discussions of Taiwan and China, have we ever thought about what the political consensus in Taiwan is? To firmly confront different identities and the existence of discrimination between ethnic groups in Taiwan? Then can we discuss issues regarding China.

If you watch FTV and SET, or CTV and CTI, you would feel, are there two different worlds in Taiwan? But it isn’t like that. It’s uncertain if consensus can be reached. But if we don’t work on this, there’s no way to break free from this circumstance, or to consider anew whose Taiwan this is and who Taiwanese are.

We often ask a lot of pro-Taiwan groups and ask them, “Is the Taiwan you advocate for actually a just and equal Taiwan? Where are indigenous in the Taiwan you envision? Where are indigenous communities?” Old pro-Taiwanese people will raise the “Four Great Ethnic Groups.” Indigenous aren’t part of this at all! [Laughs] Indigenous culture and social and arts have existed far longer than Han culture and society. 

When can we look at these real historical distinctions, we can find what is shared between us, with all these differences, rather than just claiming “We’re all just Taiwanese!” in an obfuscatory manner. So I think this is what confronts us, apart from maintaining stability in facing outside, internal issues are more important.

If we don’t firmly address the process of transitional justice, when we confront outside pressure, we’re crash very quickly internally. We wouldn’t have a shared ability to persist. This is what is what I think we confront most severely at present. And transitional justice isn’t only seeing who is the victimizer.

It’s looking at history properly, not repeating history and attempting to make redress for it, and everyone continuing together. This includes the authoritarian period, the White Terror, and the long-term history of colonization of indigenous by the nation-state. That needs to be made clear.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there could be another social movement in Taiwan such as the Sunflower Movement?

Savungaz Valincinan:  I don’t think so. For at least twenty years or so.

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think that the Sunflower Movement could influence the international world or international social movements?

Savungaz Valincinan:  As my observations go, because I’ve had the opportunity to interact with other young people in Asia in the past few years and establish some networks. I believe that Taiwan’s experience can influence how neighboring countries reflect upon their movements. But at the same time, movements in neighboring countries, including the experience of failure, is something that Taiwan needs to be very careful about.

Because what we see is the regress of democracy in many Asian countries, including military governments coming to power again in many countries. Why does Taiwan think itself exempt from these trends? Why does Taiwan only look at the experience of western countries and not what the experiences of Asian countries are? Why does it preserve that sense of vulnerability and attempt to connect with other Asian countries? I think that is quite interesting.

Photo credit: billy1125/Flickr/CC

For example, with Tsai Ing-Wen advocating the New Southwards Policy, many national governments are actually quite panicked, because they want to maintain relations with China. I remember seeing Myanmar or another country’s leader stating that Taiwan wants to expand its democracy and social movement experience using the New Southwards Policy, but that this was an unforgivable thing. You would think, “Wow! Unforgiveable?!”

You can’t exempt yourself from Asia. You can’t exempt yourself from the world. There is shared experience. Taiwan has to look around and see what occurs around it. Because that could also be Taiwan’s future, if democratization fails. Everyone feels that they are an undeveloped country, but that is not so.

Thailand’s democratization, Myanmar’s democratization, the history of these we can see clearly, and it doesn’t differ from us too much. But why have they regressed? And why hasn’t Taiwan? Could Taiwan regress? I think it could. If you look at the comments below news articles, you can see the strength of the opposition.

So progressive young people should not underestimate the strength of opposition outside just our social circles in only looking at our successes. And progressive youth may not be so progressive themselves. Self-reflection is very important, to know one’s place in Asia and the international world, and to know the relation of people on this piece of land, under this government, in this country, and in this domain. How to achieve mutual respect. This is very important.