Subject: NPR Transcript: East Timor must decide on an official language

National Public Radio (NPR-USA) Show: Morning Edition (11:00 AM on ET) June 8, 2000, Thursday





The former Portuguese colony of East Timor was annexed by Indonesia in 1976, and last year, the Timorese voted for independence. East Timor's history of foreign occupation haunts its efforts to elect an official language. The choice of Portuguese, Indonesian or English reveals a lot about East Timorese's hopes for the country's future. Reese Erlich reports from East Timor's capital, Dili.

REESE ERLICH reporting:

For 24 years, East Timorese rebelled against the human rights violations and suppression of local culture carried out by Indonesia's military occupiers. An entire generation learned Bahasa Indonesian, the official language imposed on the schools, courts and mass media. Today 52 percent of the country speaks Indonesian. Some Timorese think, as a practical matter, Indonesian should remain the official language. But many people have a gut reaction against the language associated with occupation. The older generation of Timorese liberation leaders prefer Portuguese in recognition of the island's earlier cultural roots.

(Soundbite of people talking)

ERLICH: But many Indonesian-speaking young people disagree, like those gathered at the Student Solidarity Council office. Joul Dasuva Domento(ph), a leader of that group, says young people fear they will be frozen out of jobs if they don't speak Portuguese.

Mr. JOEL DASUVA DOMENTO: There is kind of generation gap and the language uses make this issue more obvious. Adopting Portuguese as the official language of this nation got a kind of strong reaction from the young generation in East Timor. There reason is very practical. I mean, the vast majority, about 95 percent of the population, cannot speak Portuguese.

ERLICH: The debate over language reflects a wider discussion about the future orientation of East Timor. Should the new nation speak Indonesian and focus on economic ties with the former occupier? Should it speak English with the implied links to neighboring Australia and the US? Or should East Timor adopt Portuguese and seek closer relations with Portuguese-speaking countries such as Brazil and Mozambique?

(Soundbite of man talking)

ERLICH: That discussion broke out at a recent conference of FRETILIN, the organization that led East Timor's independence struggle. At the conference, delegates watched the FRETILIN flag being raised and listened to a choir sing liberation songs.

(Soundbite of singing)

ERLICH: Josanne Reese Guiterrez(ph), a FRETILIN Central Committee member and Timorese representative to the UN, says Portuguese has deep historical roots in East Timor having been the language adopted by resistance fighters and their supporters in the hills. It's also key to maintaining relations with Portuguese-speaking countries.

Mr. JOSANNE REESE GUITERREZ (FRETILIN Central Committee): It amount the language was for so many years, you know, Portuguese. Because of that, Portuguese-speaking countries like Portugal, Brazil and Angola, they have been, you know, giving, you know, huge support and solidarity for East Timor.

ERLICH: Nonetheless, Guiterrez is flexible on the language issue and emphasizes the need to further develop the local language, Tetun. Guiterrez says East Timor could have several official languages.

Mr. GUITERREZ: We should continue to study the Indonesian language, develop English at the primary level and develop Tetun. Within three- or five-year times, depending on the evolution of situation, we can perhaps try to find out if it is possible to introduce Tetun at that time as official language or other language.

ERLICH: Right now there is no standard, written form of Tetun and it lacks the vocabulary to express many modern concepts. As a practical matter, East Timorese will continue to speak Tetun and Indonesian for many years. The UN, which is temporarily administering East Timor, has determined that children will learn Portuguese and English in school. East Timor's parliament, when elected, ultimately will have to resolve what language or languages will unite the nation. For National Public Radio, I'm Reese Erlich in Dili, East Timor.

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