‘Support does not necessarily mean understanding': Interview with founder of Taiwan-based ‘Ukrainian Voices’ Oleksandr Shyn

As Taiwan and Ukraine face threats from their large and immediate neighbors — China and Russia — and as Ukraine is actually experiencing a second invasion, Taiwanese public opinion and media are drawing parallels between their situation and that of Ukraine. But is this comparison valid?

To unpack the issue, Global Voices interviewed Oleksandr Shyn, a Ukrainian volunteer of Korean descent who is the founder and coordinator of the Ukrainian Voices, an advocacy platform amplifying Ukraine’s voice in Taiwan, and the organiser at the “Taiwan Stands With Ukraine” solidarity movement. The interview took place by email in English following a meeting in a café in Taipei. The quotes were edited for style and brevity.

Portrait of Oleksandr Shyn. Photo used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN): Can you describe the Ukrainian Voices project, how it started, who the audience is, and where it is accessible? 

Oleksandr Shyn (OS):  The main inspiration behind the Ukrainian Voices (烏克蘭之聲 in Chinese) was the need to help Ukraine and the voices of  Ukrainian people to be heard in Taiwan. From the very beginning of Russias full-scale invasion, both the Taiwanese society and political leadership have shown support for Ukraine.

However, support does not necessarily mean understanding. Indeed, there was a lot of misunderstanding and misconception about what was happening in Ukraine. Many people correctly saw it as an unjust armed invasion, but very few also understood that it was a continuation of Russias colonial and imperial aggression against Ukraine.

One example — during the first protests here in Taiwan in February (which were quite disorganised given that the Ukrainians here were not a consolidated community back then yet), several Russians joined in to express their support. As expected, some of them brought their flags, heart-shaped posters, where one half was yellow-blue and the other — the Russian tricolour. Apart from the emotional harm that this hideous act caused to some Ukrainians, what was more alarming is that those people were sought after by Taiwanese journalists. The next thing you know, local newspapers were full of reports of shattered brotherhood, with a complete disregard for centuries of Russian colonial oppression against Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and other peoples who now constitute the Ukrainian nation.

It was important for us that, despite the significant size of the Russian community here, their deeper presence in places of influence, including a de-facto embassy here, we be heard as Ukrainians.

With other students and scholars, we organized ourselves into a group, started online platforms, and started offline activities. Representing Ukraine, sharing and amplifying Ukrainian voices, connecting Ukrainian voices with Taiwanese journalists, and informing people here about Ukraine. We organised KyivPrides representation for 2023 Taiwan Pride, consulted Taiwans National Human Rights Museum on their Ukraine-themed exhibition, and continue to speak about of Ukrainian narratives on various platforms — television, universities, schools, and artistic spaces.

We also amplify other initiatives here. The Ukrainians in Taiwan and our allies quickly organised themselves into numerous initiatives to aid Ukraine. One of them, Taiwan Stands With Ukraine, where I also volunteer, has helped to collect millions of hryvnias for aid to  Ukraine.

You can follow Ukrainian Voices’ pages in both English and Mandarin on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

FN: What kind of feedback and interaction do you get from the site and recent events? What are typical questions in the Taiwanese context? 

OS: There are always words of support and affirmation. I remember that when we were parading at Taiwan Pride in October 2022 with the Ukrainian and Kyiv Pride flags raised, the people on the side of the road kept cheering 烏克蘭加油. (Long Live Ukraine!)

It is my impression that an overwhelming majority of people in Taiwan believe that what is done against Ukraine is a breach of justice. They did not stay oblivious to our tragedy. An overwhelming majority choose to express such understanding — in writing, in speaking, and by donating. It is truly hard to describe with words: So many people come to “Taiwan Stands With Ukraine” fundraisers to express support or to donate. Surprisingly, people of all ages and ethnicities. This is not an exaggeration that here we are heard more than in any other country in Asia.

I often hear words of admiration for the bravery and unity of our people. Sometimes, along with I dont think that we, the Taiwanese, would be like that if we were attacked. To which I always give a humble response: We neither expected to be that resilient and united, but in the face of an existential threat and through this excruciating pain, we united — this is only natural.

FN: People often compare the situations of Taiwan and Ukraine in regard to China and Russia respectively. What is your view on this?

OS: Many analogies are being drawn in these situations, and they are all widely discussed — geopolitics, defence and military capabilities, civil defence, disinformation and narratives. I do not think it is wrong, after all Ukrainians and  Taiwanese do share a newly discovered solidarity, while Russia and China have de facto become allies.

However, specific issues of the comparison between Taiwan and Ukraine do not get much airtime, such as colonialism and decolonisation, multiculturalism and nationalism, and identities and voices.

We have received a lot of positive feedback after the recent speaker event that we co-organised with the National Human Rights Museum in Taipei in May. Our speaker there Alim Aliev, the deputy director-general of the Ukrainian Institute, talked to our Taiwanese audience about the Crimean Tatar people and their historical struggle with Russian colonialism in the past and today. This aspect of Ukraines history, of course, is new to most Taiwanese people, hence the fascination and feedback.

Taiwans Indigenous people have been subjected to oppression as well, and such parallels do help us understand each other. But at the same time, comparisons should not aim to draw perfect parallels, because those never work. That is why it was so important that we communicate with people about nuances of how Ukraine, although multiethnic, is different from Taiwan, a migrant nation, and why in Ukraine, ethnic Ukrainians are also de-facto Indigenous, but not legally considered as such unlike the Crimean Tatars — a framework entirely different from that of Taiwan.

This image from the Instagram account shows Ukrainian Voices’ latest public event:

FN: How about perceptions of Taiwan in Ukraine? Are they changing, and if so, how?

OS: The perception of Taiwan in Ukraine has changed drastically. First of all, it increased. Taiwan is often in the news in Ukraine, and not only related to Chinas foreign policy — Taiwans internal politics, human rights achievements, and pro-Ukrainian action are often reported. I do not see that level of self-censorship by Ukrainian media, politicians, and authors about Taiwan (so as not to anger China) anymore.

Unfortunately, a lot of Taiwan solidarity comes from the Taiwan–China dichotomy, and as a result of  Chinas repeated anti-Ukrainian actions and rhetoric. That does create misunderstandings, such as the  popular perception of Taiwan in Ukraine as the Good China, Real China.

Just as the misperception of Ukraine in Taiwan and the world as a once brotherly nation with Russia, such perceptions originate not from bad intentions but from a lack of direct dialogue and exchange. After all, our knowledge of each other had for a long time been dictated by narratives told by others, not ourselves.

The many platforms that are being created between the two countries will help solve this problem.

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