Subject: ProvJ: E. Timor as Portugal's post-colonial trophy

The Providence Journal-Bulletin March 12, 2001, Monday, All EDITIONS

COMMENTARY - E. Timor as Portugal's post-colonial trophy JANET GUNTER

IN BEKORA PRISON, in Dili, the capital of East Timor, only one out of more than 120 common criminals the most desperate and poorest of Timorese society speaks Portuguese. None are familiar with the language chosen to be the official language of their newly independent country.

Every week, an energetic Portuguese volunteer teaches the grammatically challenging language to the incarcerated population. Their zealous effort is proof that Portugal's resolve to claim East Timor as some kind of post-colonial trophy knows no bounds.

East Timor's de facto leadership - the dynamic duo of guerrilla/political prisoner Xanana Gusmao and Nobel Peace Prize-winning statesman Josi Ramos-Horta decided on the Portuguese language, spoken by more than 200 million people in distant Africa, Brazil and Europe. Apparently, Xanana Gusmao, the Timorese Nelson Mandela figure, made a deal with Lisbon while still in prison in the late 1990s: Portuguese as the official language in exchange for millions of dollars of financial support for the resistance party.

Obviously, the imposition of Portuguese has no democratic foundations. To its credit, Portugal was the one country to step up and provide the aid and well-equipped peacekeeping forces that East Timor desperately needed following Indonesia's disastrous 1999 exit.

Yet, this help has come with strings attached. Once deployed, the Portuguese Mission sprang back with astonishing speed, employing loyalists from the colonial era. The first bank in Dili was Portuguese, promising to pay out pre-1975 pensions. But they were to be paid in escudos, a currency undesirable on the European continent, and entirely worthless in Asia. Moreover, the bank provides virtually no lending services in a country with a devastated infrastructure and little, if any, access to capital.

Furthermore, Portugal has taken a lesson from Nike's marketing strategy. Its vehicles all have prominent Portuguese flags and the word Portugal emblazoned on the windshields.

Although the Portuguese Mission rehabbed many bridges on key roads emanating from Dili, it also placed conspicuous Portugal cornerstones and markers in the masonry. Despite the obvious inability of many and the reluctance of some East Timorese to speak Portuguese, Portuguese peacekeepers and civil servants often insist on using their language daily. For instance, at restaurants, they bark orders to waiters in Portuguese. The East Timorese are accomplished polyglots, as former Portuguese colonial subjects, survivors of a brutal, 25-year Indonesian occupation, and now hosts to an English-speaking U.N. Mission.

On top of the three historically imposed languages, 32 regional languages exist, only one of which, Tetum, is anywhere near universal. But to the Indonesian-speaking younger generation, the Portuguese language is about as relevant as the absurd escudo; even their parents and grandparents all speak Indonesian, the universal language for 25 years. Adding to this are tens of thousands of East Timorese returning from Australia who have adopted English as their primary language.

Yet Portugal has sent about 120 eager volunteer teachers to the 13 districts of East Timor to gain the allegiance of the youngest in primary schools. It is not just the language, complain locals, it is the accompanying aggressive attitude. A condescending sense of entitlement is not lost on the East Timorese. Portuguese peacekeepers yank inferior Indonesian music out of restaurant sound systems and replace it with Portuguese music.

Many East Timorese complain that the Portuguese police in Dili are armed excessively, and some are even beginning to associate the language with force. During a January scuffle with Portuguese police, a crowd of students reportedly shouted, Speak in Indonesian, we don't understand Portuguese. What Portugal should realize is that, language aside, its influence will not soon fade from East Timor.

Architecture, religion, music, food, and even the very names of East Timorese people will remain intimately tied to Portuguese culture. But Portugal's attempt at recolonizing the country via language is ludicrously anachronistic. The Portuguese government is oblivious to the fact that most East Timorese will forgive a perceived abandonment by this colonial power that did little to improve the territory during its 400-year occupation.

The East Timorese will forgive Portugal's initial hesitation to advocate internationally for the island country in the first brutal years of the Indonesian occupation. What East Timorese will not forgive is being bullied and blackmailed into becoming a living fossil for a distant, once-great colonizer. The East Timorese are tired of being propagandized, occupied and used. In trying to gain international legitimacy for its work and promote its lingual superiority, Portugal is instead in danger of eliciting an embarrassing backlash from its former subjects.

Portugal should empower East Timor to forge its own path as a new nation, one that will inevitably be moved by its Portuguese heritage.


Janet Gunter is a B.A. candidate in development studies at Brown University. She recently returned from East Timor, where she studied social reconciliation.

March Menu 
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from