Subject: Age: Timor fighting a war of words

The Age Saturday 25 August 2001

Timor fighting a war of words


East Timor's Nobel laureate cabinet member for foreign affairs, Jose Ramos Horta, has blasted the United Nations mission in Dili for obstructing implementation of Portuguese as the country's official language.

In a confidential memo sent to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, Mr Horta accused UN staff of wanting to impose English and Indonesian languages on East Timorese.

In the letter dated August 20, a copy of which was obtained by The Age, Mr Ramos Horta said he had banned his staff from cooperating with any UNTAET training program that did not use Portuguese as the language of instruction.

"I would like to inform that no staff from this department will attend this secretariat training workshop as, once again, some of the international staff seem to wish to impose Bahasa Indonesia or English," Mr Ramos Horta said. "Time and again, these international staff members have completely ignored the majority of East Timorese political leaders (who) have stated that Portuguese will be the official language of this country. In this context and in my capacity as cabinet member, I have forbidden my staff to cooperate with any branch of UNTAET that insist in ignoring Portuguese language initiatives they organise."

Mr Ramos Horta's tirade raises again the controversial subject of East Timor's official language, which the older generation of independence leaders, including Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, say should be Portuguese, the language of their former coloniser.

Mr Gusmao, an early proponent of Portuguese as the official language, said the choice was important in defining East Timor's cultural heritage.

His call for the adoption of Portuguese sparked a heated debate last year during the national congress of the pro-independence umbrella group, the National Council of Timorese Resistance.

The choice of Portuguese is by no means universal among East Timorese, many of whom prefer English or Indonesian in addition to their national language, Tetum. Many East Timorese university students fluent in Indonesian resent having to learn another language that they say is irrelevant to the region.

English classes are fast becoming as popular as Portuguese for many students who see fluency in English as essential for a well-paid job with a foreign company, an aid agency or as local staff working for the UN mission.

"If you are going to teach one language then teach a language that is going to open up the world and the region for East Timorese and that language is not Portuguese but English," said one senior East Timorese official.

Mr de Mello said UNTAET would not get involved in the language debate, saying it was a matter for the new East Timorese government.

However, senior UN officials told The Age that vital UN-sponsored training programs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were potentially at risk over insistence that they be taught in Portuguese.

With a hefty budget allocated to judicial training, the US mission has recently expressed private concern at the insistence by the cabinet member for judicial affairs, Gita Welch, that the language of the courts be Portuguese.

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