Subject: ABC: School book causes diplomatic outcry in East Timor

ABC Online

The World Today - School book causes diplomatic outcry in East Timor

[This is the print version of story]

The World Today - Friday, 26 March , 2004 12:38:52

Reporter: Anne Barker

HAMISH ROBERTSON: A children's schoolbook which portrays the President and Prime Minister of East Timor as monkeys has caused a diplomatic outcry.

A Washington-based organisation, the International Republican Institute, has compiled the book to teach children about the processes of democracy.

As Anne Barker reports, even the President himself, Xanana Gusmao, has taken personal exception to being described as a monkey, and the book has now been shelved.

ANNE BARKER: It's called Faty and Noi's Adventure to Parliament, a colourful picture book designed to teach East Timorese primary school children about the workings of government.

And to make it more engaging, the International Republican Institute, chose to portray the characters as monkeys.

One illustration even shows four monkeys outside the Presidential Palace.

But within days of the book's launch the President himself, Xanana Gusmao, had expressed outrage and demanded the book be immediately shelved.

East Timor's Education Minister, Armindo Maia, says it should never have been made.

ARMINDO MAIA: It was a book, a book that lacks this culture sensitiveness by comparing the East Timorese to monkeys.

And monkeys here in East Timor is like a stupid or nutty and it's a very pejorative character.

ANNE BARKER: So it was culturally offensive?


ANNE BARKER: Do you think children though would make that connection?

ARMINDO MAIA: Well, you know, it's just like making fun of them (laughs).

And particularly when you look at the cover, I mean, it reminds you of caricatures like the President, the Prime Minister and the President of the Parliament and people they easily recognise.

ANNE BARKER: So the monkeys were drawn deliberately to look like East Timorese leaders?


ANNE BARKER: But the Republican Institute denies it ever meant to offend, and it's now withdrawn the book permanently.

Its program manager in Dili, Rick Smotkin, says he had no idea that in East Timorese culture, the monkey is held in contempt.

RICK SMOTKIN: We had extensive consultation with the Government leaders, with the President, with students, with teachers and everyone agreed that the monkey was the funnest animal to portray to children, that children would relate to them and it would be a fun story for them.

In no way did we ever mean to offend the people of East Timor, or be culturally insensitive and we apologise profusely for that and for the reaction that came.

ANNE BARKER: Were you surprised at the reaction?

RICK SMOTKIN: Yes. I mean, it doesn't really portray individuals. I mean, it's loosely based on the key leaders of today, but like I said, it was never the intention of IRI or IRI especially here in Timor to portray the leaders of the country as monkeys.

It was a fun way to educate people on a democratic process here in East Timor.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: That was Rick Smotkin, speaking to Anne Barker.

© 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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