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Indonesian, English, yes, Portuguese, sorry, no

Jakarta Post - April 11, 2007

Abdul Khalik, Dili – Opening his math book, Manuel da Silva, 17, discovered he had something to clarify before he could finish the homework his teacher had given him.

"I don't understand question number three," he told his teacher in Indonesian, his eyes not moving from his Indonesian-language textbook

His teacher, Jose Ribeiro, a man educated in Jakarta, explained the problem in Indonesian before walking out the door to the teachers' room in one of Dili's senior high schools.

"We have to use the Indonesian language in class because most of the textbooks we use are written in Indonesian. Sometimes we mix it with Tetum (the native language of Timor Leste) to make students understand better," Ribeiro told The Jakarta Post.

Although Timor Leste's government has declared Tetum and Portuguese the country's official languages, only a few older people use Portuguese in everyday conversation, he said.

"I don't speak Portuguese, neither do most of the teachers here, and my students certainly don't. But all of us speak Indonesian and some English.

"Although we use Tetum in everyday conversation, it can't be used in class as we have no national standard for the language and words. We could end up misinterpreting a scientific concept," he said.

He said that every educational institution, from junior high schools to universities, experienced the same problem.

The government made the teaching of Portuguese and English mandatory in schools after receiving independence from Indonesia five years ago, but this is yet to have an impact on the student's fluency.

In every press conference during Timor Leste's presidential elections, local and international journalists and observers shake their heads in disbelief when officials continue to speak in Portuguese despite the fact that even Timor Leste natives cannot understand.

As a young citizen of Timor Leste, Vicente Pereira, 21, has experienced life under Indonesian rule and independence. He also is baffled as to why his government adopted the Portuguese language rather than Indonesian.

"We know nothing about Portugal or its language. We need books from Indonesia. I hope one day will have a book store like Gramedia here," he said, referring to Indonesia's largest bookstore and publishing house.

An expert on Timor Leste, Nugroho Katjasungkana from the Institute for Popular Education, said that while the Timor Leste government seemed to want to leave everything about Indonesia behind, people were still very much attached to Indonesia.

"They did not like Indonesia when it occupied their land. Now that they are independent, they have no reason to continue this. Most people know they need Indonesia for basic commodities. Everything from soap to gas is still being imported from Indonesia," Nugroho said.

A businesswoman from Indonesia, Utik, who has for several years ran a business in Dili with her Singaporean husband, also complained about the attitude of the many officials who tend to prioritize the Portuguese language.

"All businesspeople from Indonesia are very confused when they have to fill in documents in Portuguese as most of these documents are not translated into English. Most officials pretend they don't understand Indonesian. I mean, come on, they need Indonesian businesspeople because we are the closest neighbor," she told the Post.

Indonesian Ambassador to Timor Leste Ahmed Bey Sofwan said that Indonesia was now working on establishing a cultural and language center in Dili to monitor the development of the Indonesian language in the country.