Subject: AU: Portuguese gives official voice to E Timor

The Australian 31 Dec 99

Portuguese gives official voice to E Timor

From CARMEL EGAN in Dili

PORTUGUESE, a language spoken by fewer than 20 per cent of East Timorese, is to be the official language of the new country.

Tetum, indigenous to the Dili region, will be the parallel national language.

The National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) yesterday confirmed Portuguese would be used in government, commerce, bureaucracy and education ahead of Bhasa Indonesian or English.

Portuguese is a controversial choice because it is spoken only by older Timorese and the educated elite. Most people under 25 have grown up reading, writing and speaking Bhasa and don't understand the old colonial language.

Student activists had suggested English as a politically neutral choice with economic benefits.

But CNRT deputy president Jose Ramos Horta defended the decision. "Portuguese is a language that has been here for 500 years," he said. "Indonesia tried to wipe it out, but it is still here, spoken by a small number of people who are the opinion-makers; teachers, business people, political leaders, the church."

"What we are saying, however, to any Timorese who is a proud Timorese, if he doesn't speak Portuguese he must at least speak Tetum, the national language."

Mr Ramos Horta said people would also be encouraged to study English at an elementary level.

"English is a commodity rather than a cultural language for the East Timorese."

Tetum was never challenged as the national language because it was the most common, best developed of the 30 languages spoken in East Timor, a spokesman for leader Xanana Gusmao said.

"But it is also under developed and a lot of work needs to be done to define its written form," he said.

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