Subject: AGE: Tongue-tied in East Timor

Tongue-tied in East Timor

By HAMISH McDONALD Friday 27 October 2000

The old printing presses of East Timor's biggest newspaper lie warped and rusting, with a pair of trousers drying on a line strung between them, in a roofless, burnt-out building in the centre of Dili.

But Suara Timor Timur, the Voice of East Timor, is not silent. From converted worksheds and washrooms at the back of the premises comes its successor, Suara Timor Lorosae, aiming to be the voice of the new independent nation rather than the former Indonesian province.

In the print room, Vitalis Bau, 30, stands by the newspaper's replacement press, the Sprint 25, a simple model that churns out the daily's 2400 copies.

"It's very fast," says Bau. "If there is no problem from them" he gestures towards the editorial office "we can start at 3am and finish in three hours."

But production and office space may be the least of problems for publisher Salvador Soares and his staff. The paper is a linguistic mix-up, switching from Indonesian to the local Tetum language to English to Portuguese from story to story, page to page, reflecting the confused orientations of this much-contested half-island.

Reconstructing East Timor's buildings and infrastructure from the wreckage left after 24 years of occupation may turn out to be easier than building a political culture. In particular, there is no ready answer to the question: What language will be spoken?

Having returned from the jungles, prisons and places of exile after those 24 years, Xanana Gusmao's leadership in the National Council of East Timor Resistance recently declared Portuguese the official language.

Portugal, stricken by a wave of sympathy for the colony its governor abandoned in 1975, has rallied to the cause. It has sent 150 volunteer teachers to help reintroduce Portuguese as the teaching medium in the schools.

In the new school year (due to start on October1 but running late), the first two primary grades will be taught in Portuguese, those above them in Indonesian (with textbooks hastily revised to exclude Indonesian nationalist ideology). By 2004-5, it is hoped, Portuguese will have completely replaced Indonesian in schools.

At the CNRT office in the eastern town of Los Palos, South Korean peacekeepers guard crates containing 34 color TV sets, also gifts from Portugal. They will be sent to each village nearby, along with a satellite dish that will be aligned to a Chinese satellite relaying Portugal's international TV channel.

"We are happy that they choose the language and that there will now be eight Portuguese-speaking countries in the world," says Pedro Moitinho de Almeida, head of the Portuguese mission in Dili. "It's a fact that makes us very proud they have taken this decision. But it gives us an obligation to follow with assistance, to see that there is a good command of the Portuguese language by the Timorese people."

Portugal is "a different country from what it was in 1975" and just wants to help, he says, without trying to exclude other countries. "I would not call it a guilty feeling, but an attempt to regain the bonds with a people with whom we have a lot in common from all those 500 years."

But even in former times, after more than four centuries of colonial penetration, no more than 15per cent of the population spoke Portuguese, though many words filtered into native languages. Those speakers are now an ageing cohort, while the vast bulk of the population use Indonesian in their daily life, study and work. The United Nations has opted to continue using Indonesian law during its transition, prolonging the impact.

For all the wrongs of its occupation, Indonesia did introduce widespread education and brought several thousand East Timorese through to college and university level. The CNRT's choice of Portuguese is an unhappy one for this generation of graduates, who see a political elite forming that excludes them because of language problems.

"It's not yet accepted by the younger people," says Michael Mali, 35, a reporter on Suara Timor Lorosae. "It's a problem, because the only ones who can speak it well are the people from before, who were taught by the Portuguese. There is some worry among the young that a minority will have the inner running of the new nation."

Tetum, spoken by about 60per cent of the East Timorese, is one longer-term answer, but in its current form is deemed by most people to be incapable of carrying modern political dialogues and other complex tasks. "It has no rules," laments Virgilio Guterres, the young editor of a weekly Tetum newspaper Lalenok (Mirror), which prints 900 copies.

Indonesian could have been "nationalised" and renamed Timorese just as Malaysia uses its own version but to the CNRT leaders the idea is not just emotionally jarring, but wrong from a longer-term perspective.

"One of the reasons why we fought was the difference between East and West," says Joao Carrascalao, now a CNRT minister in charge of reconstruction attached to the UN transitional administration. In 1975 he was a leader of the misguided coup by the conservative party UDT, which started events leading to Indonesia's invasion. "We wanted to choose a language that could identify ourselves in the region. Portuguese links us with those countries who were part of the Portuguese empire before. It creates some kind of bridge between us and Europe."

Ironically, Carrascalao and his brothers Mario and Manuel, also prominent in the CNRT, are sons of a deportado from Portugal, an anarcho-syndicalist exiled to this furthest realm of empire by the Salazar regime in 1927 and who later married a Timorese woman. He says Portuguese will not be rammed down people's throats.

"We are introducing it gradually. We don't want to enforce a dramatic change. The people can become more familiar with the language ... Even in the Tetum language you will find a big, big number of Portuguese words, borrowed because there is no equivalent. That's not to say we are not going to develop the Tetum language, but it will take about 10 years."

Agio Perreira, another CNRT figure, admits that few East Timorese ever spoke Portuguese. "On the other hand, no one spoke Indonesian either," he says.

Although perhaps 60per cent now speak Indonesian, the CNRT chose Portuguese because it was a more widely used international language, with links to Europe, and because it had been the language of the resistance, spoken by Xanana Gusmao and others during their guerrilla struggle. The Portuguese-speaking countries had consistently helped the resistance voting for it on UN resolutions, arranging office space at the UN, providing asylum and passports.

Perreira says the language question is going to be "very tough" in the school system over the next five years, but for the East Timorese generally, adopting Portuguese may not be as hard as it looks. "We are all bilingual here, learning languages is not so hard," he says.

But he admits the danger of elites forming and sees the answer in a vigorous multiculturalism that borrows from Australia, where many of the CNRT leadership spent years of exile.

"We need to be very intensive with language training and very intensive with interpreting services," Perreira says. "We have to apply multiculturalism in many ways, in community radio for example, so that everyone can participate."

At street level in Dili, the change is barely felt. Outside the Banco Nancional Ultramarino, Portuguese-style boulevard life is starting to resume, with patrons lingering over small cups of sweet black coffee. But on the road, throngs of young currency dealers sell rupiahs; Indonesian dangdut popular music blares from a cassette player in a noodle-soup stall.

A young taxi driver peels off change from a grimy roll of Indonesia rupiah notes, and tosses off an automatic "Terimakasi, ya?" ("Thanks, eh?" in Indonesian) before correcting himself. "Obligado," he says, with an ironic smile.

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