Subject: The Nation: ETimor's language problem

(Poster's note: Kavi Chongkittavorn was in ETimor recently, on behalf of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance -- a chapter of the Committee to Protect Journalists -- assessing the state of media in the territory.)

Editorial & Opinion The Nation, Bangkok, Nov 29, 1999

LETTER FROM DILI: E Timor's language problem: Diak ka lae? By Kavi Chongkittavorn

''Diak ka lae?'' means ''How do you do?'' in the Tetum language -- the lingua franca of the East Timorese people. It is a popular greeting among foreigners, who have flooded East Timor in the past few months. The Australians are saying it. The Italians are saying it. The Thais are also saying it. But in the future, will Tetun become the national language? No one knows.

At the moment, publications done by the International Forces in East Timor, United Nations-related agencies and non-governmental organisations are in Tetun. Some publications include Indonesian languages spoken among the young, who were until September educated under the Indonesian system. Tetun is also used by the two radio stations run by the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (Untaet), which cover only one-third of the population (although the majority of them no longer have radios in their possession).

While the public and Untaet continue to discuss the future of the language, an English-language tabloid has appeared to take advantage of the news vacuum left by the wreckage. Before the Indonesian soldiers and their supporters left here, they managed to destroy all media infrastructure, not to mention other things, inside the country.

The Dili Times, published in Darwin, made an appearance two weeks ago at $1 a copy. It was the talk of the town simply because the newspaper is a bit of a ''cowboy'' type of venture, trying to make a quick buck out of advertising and thirst for news for expatriates. Its front page shows it. It has information on how to do business in East Timor. The paper's biggest advertiser is a car-rental company.

For the East Timorese journalists, the fortnightly Dili Times represents a new threat to their community. Rosa Garcia, a young journalist, who lost her job after the pro-Indonesian militia torched the Suara Timor Timur, was very blunt. ''It is disgusting,'' she said. Since the announcement of the outcome of the referendum on Sept 4, the newly-independent country has been without any newspaper. In the past three weeks, Rosa published a one-page A-4 size newsletter with assistance from her friends working at the United Nations and NGOs.

The first and second issue contained only four or five items on public notices and Bishop Carlos Belo's addresses. She hopes her former two dozen colleagues can get together once again to publish a complete newspaper that represents the voice of the East Timorese.

''We must have our own newspaper, the sooner the better,'' she says.

It is very brave for Rosa to say that. Anybody who has visited East Timor will know right away that it will be extremely difficult for her to fulfil her dream. Printing facilities have been destroyed, and the skeletons of burned plate-makers, printing presses, dark rooms and ashes of piles of newsprint are popular sights for visiting guests and non-governmental organisations.

Now that the Indonesian influence has been purged, journalists like Rosa and her friends have to grapple with new dilemmas, particularly the language to be used in a newspaper.

When Indonesia ruled East Timor for almost a quarter of a century, Bahasa Indonesia was the main language. Rosa and her colleagues have written in the Indonesian language for all their lives. They speak Tetun but they have never written in the Tetum language. Now she is doing exactly that. She said putting out a newsletter is good practice.

A decision has not been made for the time about which language will become the national and official tongue. Talking to people on the streets, they all said that the Tetum language will certainly become the new national language. Bishop Carlos Belo also believes so. But further studies and work is needed to turn the long-neglected language into a fully developed means of communication, both in speaking and writing. During the occupation, Indonesia suppressed Tetun.

The East Timorese leaders, who are known under the umbrella of the National Resistance Committee of East Timor, or CRNT, have openly stated that Portuguese will be the national language to reflect its past heritage. This is still a controversial issue because there is no consensus as yet. Belo and other community leaders think that there should be a referendum on the national language in the future.

They said it could be done in an election after the Untaet leaves East Timor. Meanwhile, they agreed that some forms of accommodation are required for all the languages.

Belo said that East Timorese people speak in a combination of four languages. The elite speak all four and the common people speak Tetum and Indonesian languages. Youngsters know some English. Tetun also borrows words from Portuguese and Indonesian.

Doubtless, youngsters prefer English as the official language. They said they will also keep Indonesian. In fact, they have expressed concern about the sincerity of the current East Timorese leaders, whom they label politicians.

''They want to rob our future,'' was a typical response. ''So we will not challenge them,'' was another. Intellectuals like Arlindo Marchal believe that East Timor as a truly multi-lingual society should use Tetun, Bahasa Indonesian, English and Portuguese.

He said in Singapore, there are four languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Singhalese).

The situation here can easily remind visitors of the earlier days of the United Nations-run Cambodia following the Paris peace accords in 1991. Outsiders come in like thunder looking for new opportunities while the local people struggled to survive and put their nation together.

Singapore businessmen have joined hands with Australian constructors and are already making their presence felt here. They have ventured far beyond the capital city.

Without an indigenous and pluralistic voice that can be read or heard throughout the country, the East Timorese, despite their independence, are still in the dark.

Sonny Inbaraj and Ilana Eldridge 20, Camphor Street, Nightcliff Darwin, NT 0810, Australia

Tel/ Fax: +61-8-89485333

Back to November 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 V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from