Subject: IPS/E Timor: Language, Currency A Sore Point For New Nation

EAST TIMOR: Language, Currency A Sore Point For New Nation

By Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, Jan 21 (IPS) - As East Timor's people begin rebuilding their shattered nation, the question of language and currency threatens to divide their political landscape. East Timor's independence leaders, most of whom had been educated in Portugal, are trying to remold the country's identity after over two decades of brutal occupation by Indonesia.

But they are facing stiff opposition from a younger Bahasa Indonesia-speaking generation who think it is time to look away from the two former occupiers of East Timor.

In August, East Timor voted in a referendum to break free from Indonesia, setting off a wave of violence by pro-Jakarta militias and the Indonesian security forces. It now moves towards independence, expected in two to three years, under U.N. supervision.

But the business of government has created its own set of touchy issues.

More than 400 years after the Portuguese first set foot in East Timor, and 25 years after they abruptly withdrew from their neglected colony as it plunged into civil war ahead of the Indonesian invasion, the territory's veteran leaders are demanding that the Portuguese language and even Portugal's currency, the escudo, be adopted in the new East Timor.

Independence leaders like Xanana Gusmao, Nobel Peace laureates Jose Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, and the former governor of East Timor under Indonesian rule, Mario Carrascalao, were all educated in the Portuguese system and identify strongly with the former colonial power.

Xanana, who is widely expected to be East Timor's first president, has written on his love for the Portuguese language.

At a World Bank reconstruction meeting in Dili, in November, Carrascalao urged UN officials not to do away with East Timor's Portuguese past, as the Indonesians attempted to do after they invaded in 1975.

''Don't do that to us again. Don't come here and make English our official language,'' he was reported as saying in 'The Age', an Australian daily.

But the recently concluded Renetil youth congress here warned that there was no consensus in East Timor either to adopt the Portuguese language, or the escudo.

''The majority of East Timorese people do not understand Portuguese and it will be difficult for many, especially the young generation to participate in the political dynamics and development of East Timor,'' said outgoing Renetil secretary-general Fernando Araujo.

Renetil was the largest underground youth organisation in East Timor. In 1989, they came under the umbrella of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) -- a non-partisan clandestine coalition of all East Timorese groups fighting for independence, the head of which is Xanana.

Renetil members often excelled in high school, winning government scholarships to continue their education in Indonesian universities. But these young, educated urban East Timorese, remained bitterly opposed to the Indonesian presence in their homeland.

Now, they are deliberating their role in the new East Timor. In their Jan 9 congress, they voted that the organisation break away from CNRT and instead be a pressure group monitoring both the UN and East Timorese leaders.

''Almost 95 percent of Timorese including the professional class speak in Tetun and Bahasa Indonesia, and it will only make sense if one of these languages be made the official language,'' said Araujo.

Araujo, a post-graduate student now continuing his studies in Australia, strongly advocated the use of Tetun as the national language in East Timor.

''Let Bahasa Indonesia, Portuguese and English take its own course. Tetun is the lingua franca in East Timor and the language has proven its resistance both in the Portuguese and Indonesian colonial periods,'' said Araujo.

Taking a swipe at CNRT leaders, especially those from the diaspora who had just returned from Portugal, the former Renetil leader said: ''It is not democratic if the majority are forced to speak a language spoken by only 5 percent of the people. It's a case of the political elite not knowing how to speak the popular language and imposing their will on the people.''

Commenting on the matter of which currency to use, Araujo said the rich and poor in East Timor were using two different sets of currencies.

''The poor are holding on to Indonesian rupiah while the rich UN people and foreign aid workers pay in escudos, American dollars or Australian dollars,'' he pointed out.

Indeed, the class distinction is clearly evident in the capital Dili. At the floating Hotel Olympia, used by the UN to house its personnel, only escudos, US and Australian dollars are accepted as legal tender. Neither are Indonesian rupiah -- or local Timorese -- allowed on board.

''Taking into account this gap, the question is how do we find a currency that truly represents capital in East Timor, both now and the future,'' asked Araujo.

He advised against choosing a strong currency for East Timor. ''It's no use having a strong currency because our exports would be too expensive if we're depending on regional markets in ASEAN (Association of South- east Asian Nations).''

But International Monetary Fund economist Luis Mendonca told reporters in Dili recently that the European single currency was actually a more favourable option than the escudo.

''I think the East Timorese themselves consider three currencies for the future -- the US dollar, the Australian dollar and the euro,'' Mendonca said.

''The escudo really doesn't exist. It is just a division of the euro and the euro of course is a stable currency. It is internationally accepted and gaining importance in the international market, but one negative point ... is that the international trade of East Timor is done in US dollars.''

However, given the strict criteria for countries wanting to join the euro, it is not clear whether East Timor would be allowed to use the currency and where this is realistic.

Mendonca was later quoted as saying the IMF would not decide the currency for the territory and that his view was based on technical data and the composition of East Timor's trade.

But the IMF economist advised against the use of the Indonesian rupiah -- whose value plunged after the financial crisis of 1997 -- saying it was too unstable. (END/IPS/ap-ip-if/si/js/00)

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