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East Timor's tower of Babel

Sydney Morning Herald - August 16, 2002

Dennis Schulz and Fernando de Freitas report – Opposite the clerk in the Government's Office of Foreign Affairs, Maria Gutierrez stares blankly at the official application, mouth agape. It is written in Portuguese. Like most young East Timorese, she is a speaker of Bahasa Indonesia. "What is this?" she asks in her native tongue.

The smartly dressed clerk behind the counter starts explaining in Portuguese that she must fill out the application in that language before it can be accepted by the Government. Portuguese is, after all, the official language of East Timor. All documentation as well as all language used in government offices must be written in Portuguese, he says.

Gutierrez can't understand a word he says but the clerk's body language delivers the message. Defeated and angry, she turns with the application in her hand, through the door and into the streets of Dili to look for a translator.

She is not alone. Across the fledgling nation, the new Government's decision to deem Portuguese the country's official language has prompted what is shaping up to be the country's first social conflict.

Resentment is particularly rife among the country's younger generation who grew up during the 23 years of Indonesian occupation. Most speak only Indonesian and Tetum, the undeveloped local language.

"They are forcing people to speak Portuguese," charges Indonesian-educated journalist Cristina Freitas. "Portuguese should not be compulsory. And it should not be the official language because most people don't speak it and don't want to speak it."

She cites recurrent problems in the East Timor Parliament. During a recent debate, official documents were presented to the elected members regarding the oil and gas agreement with Australia, with many unable to read them. Translators were not available due to budgetary restraints, so, amid the chaos, legislators were unable to finalise the issue. "How can they consider or debate issues when they don't understand what's being presented?" asks Freitas.

The language conflict is perhaps most apparent in the country's schools. The Government has moved to make Portuguese compulsory at the primary school level even though very few teachers have the necessary command of the language to teach it. From year 4 to university, Indonesian and Tetum are still allowed, but lower primary school teachers are frustrated. Like their students, their knowledge of Portuguese is confined to simple greetings and basic reading skills.

According to an official household survey conducted last year by the Planning Commission, Portuguese is spoken by just 5 per cent of the 750,000 East Timorese, with Tetum spoken by 82 per cent and Indonesian by 43 per cent. Though Tetum is widely spoken, it is a language devoid of technological diversity and it only recently achieved a standardised grammar and spelling. Amid the controversy it was also made an official language but is yet to feature in documentation.

Portuguese may be the language of the tiny minority but it will remain the official language, according to the President, Xanana Gusmao. "For now we will continue this initial maintenance of the Portuguese language," he told the Herald. "Overall there are various difficulties. Structural problems mainly – not just in Parliament with a lack of translators to ensure all documents are translated, but to the public sphere where people are having problems adjusting. It's difficult, but does that imply we should have adopted Bahasa Indonesia instead?"

Gusmao was one of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) group of leaders who decided to make Portuguese the official language in 1999. It was a decision handed down by the leadership, most of whom had not experienced the previous 23 years of occupation along with the general East Timorese population. Many leaders had been either in the jungle fighting a guerilla war or in exile overseas. Upon their return, they found East Timor a nation of Indonesian speakers.

"This decision is coming from a very small group of leaders who are, unfortunately, very powerful ones," says a constitutional lawyer and former Fretilin member of parliament, Aderito De Jesus Soares. "They have a romanticised view of Portuguese. It's a stupid strategy that will backfire on us in the future."

For the Fretilin leadership, Portuguese is not simply a language – it is a symbol of the steely resolve that took them to independence from Indonesia. It was their Portuguese heritage – 450 years of colonisation from afar – that created this hybrid Catholic state anchored in a sea of Islam. Through the colonial period, President Soeharto and Jakarta's generals failed to understand why the East Timorese were so steadfast in their desire for independence when their neighbours in West Timor and Christian Flores never rebelled.

"Without the Portuguese connection there would have been no aspirations to nationhood in East Timor," explains linguist Dr Geoffrey Hull of the University of Western Sydney. "It was the Portuguese imprint that made the East Timorese a unique people, distinct from those around them."

The leadership sees their decision as a practical one. The elevation of Portuguese, they say, will align them strongly with a host of former colonies that continue to speak the mother tongue, the sixth-most-spoken language in the world.

East Timor's leaders, and their ally the Catholic Church, are determined not to see their country transformed into a cultural satellite of Australia. "They are all aware that English is a notorious killer," says Dr Hull. "That Anglophone culture in Australia killed off scores of Aboriginal languages in less than 200 years, whereas in the four centuries of Lusophone hegemony, not one dialect of East Timor has been lost."

It was no surprise that the Portuguese language was the first pillar of East Timorese culture that was attacked by the Indonesians following the 1975 conquest. The country was sealed off for three years while the Indonesians set about imposing their language and culture upon the vanquished. It was a rigid regime that had worked well in the colonisation process elsewhere in the archipelago. Speaking anything but Indonesian was banned and physically punished. Among the mature, whispered Portuguese remained the language of resistance while young East Timorese were schooled in Indonesian by an army of imported Indonesian teachers.

As a result, today Indonesian is the language of the street, the village and the marketplace. It is the most commonly spoken language in the country, even though it is recognised by the Government as only a "working language", as is English. It is a colonial vestige that they are determined to dump. "We plan on phasing out Bahasa altogether, but it will take time," explains East Timor's Minister for Education, Culture, Youth and Sports, Armindo Maia. He believes that, although the decision to make Portuguese the national language was made by a select few, there was adequate consultation. "We consulted with the people. We wrote a constitution and now we are implementing the constitution. We are not imposing. We went through a process," he says.

Maia was a member of the East Timorese ministerial delegation that visited Jakarta earlier this month seeking to normalise relations with its former colonial masters. With Indonesian its only positive legacy, the Indonesian hierarchy was keen to see the language retained in East Timor's classrooms. "A request was made by President Megawati to have Indonesian included in the curriculum, but we did not respond to that request," he says. "It will be discussed."

Meanwhile, in Dili, opposition to the imposition of Portuguese is gaining momentum, a gulf of confidence widening between the generations. Many younger East Timorese would prefer expanding Tetum to full development than speaking Portuguese. Although it is recognised in the constitution, the Government has done nothing to broaden Tetum's capacity to satisfy the demands placed on a contemporary language in a changing world. "The constitution clearly states that we should be developing Tetum as the official language, but it's not happening," contends Jose Lobato, a Fretilin member of the General Assembly. "Lack of resources is a definite problem but I think there is also a lack of political will. Young people are being marginalised." Lobato is the son of a legendary Fretilin leader, Nicolao Lobato, who was killed in 1978 during the guerilla war against the Indonesians. He says the reason he ran for parliament was to fight against the marginalisation of young East Timorese Indonesian speakers after Portuguese was enshrined in the constitution as the sole national language. It was through his efforts that Tetum was added to that document.

Most believe the Portuguese language will not survive in East Timor. The Government may attempt to phase out Bahasa Indonesia, but as a younger leadership takes over from old freedom fighters, the language of their former oppressors could return to prominence.

"You can't expect the majority of the population, which is educated in Indonesian, to keep Portuguese once they have power," says Soares. "The Government needs to be flexible and leave the door open on the language question. If they try to close the door, it will create big tension in the near future."