East Timor: Portuguese Language Under Attack

In what is a dramatic reversal of official position Timor Hau Nia Doben reports that the President of the National Parliament agrees with recent statements by General Taur Matan Ruak that Portuguese language should be removed from Timor-Leste. [Addendum 16 March: a reader very correctly point out an error, Ruak did not for the complete removal of the Portuguese language. He called for the removal of Portuguese from the Timorese court system.  Tempo Semanal has posted video of the interview – thus clarifying the matter].


  • Ken Westmoreland

    Taur Matan Ruak did not say that the Portuguese language should be ‘removed from Timor Leste’, but rather that foreign judges should speak Tetum and the language of the courts should be Tetum and not Portuguese, on the grounds that Tetum is spoken by most people in the country, whereas Portuguese is not.

    Dili Flash, The President of the National Parliament (PN), Fernando Lasama, supports the declaration by Commander General F-FDTL Major General Taur Matan Ruak, which asks that judgement for all Court cases must be in Tetum, because of its link with people’s lives.

    He considers Taur Matan Ruak’s declaration a big appeal to the state in order to give consideration to finding solutions before some people become victims of this situation.

    “I support the Major General’s declaration that, if possible, that judgements for all cases be by Timorese. Then these foreigners can just be advisors” said Lasama in the National Parliament yesterday.

    Before this, the Commander had made heated declaration opposing Portuguese judges, defence and lawyer who did not know how to speak Tetum because it creates confusion for most Timorese who need justice for their case, because they do not understand Portuguese.

    In this declaration, Taur asked that the various Portuguese who worked in the courts and who did not know Tetum well should just return to their country, because Tetum was the official language.

    The same question was also raised on the PD benches, by Adriano Nascimento, who said that Taur’s expression of regret was indeed reality because it was the same situation that they also face in the National Parliament and has already become a big problem for the nation. Because of this he considers Taur’s declaration to be an important message and it needs consideration from all those in power, in order to change situation with objective of the nation developing and become strong.

    “The problem with language is not just in the Courts but also in the National Parliament, because most of us don’t understand Portuguese either – so in half of the debates of laws, sometimes we are silent with just hands raised” said Adriano.

    On the other hand, although Fretilin deputy Antonio Bianco consider Taur’s declaration to be true, one also needs to recognise that Timor Leste’s human resources which are still limited, because according to him, in order to avoid this situation, the state must use financial resources to recruit some professionals in language to translate with ease so that the judgement process in courts can work effectively. (Edited STL,13/03)

    That is not an attack on the Portuguese language, and nor should it be construed as such.

  • Ken Westmoreland

    Thanks. However, not using Portuguese in the courts and in parliament does not preclude it from being used in other areas. In fact, the whole problem is that Portuguese is absent from other areas of public life – commerce, popular culture, the press (most items in Portuguese are taken from Lusa, Portugal’s
    news agency). A bilingual Tetum-Portuguese newspaper folded in 2005 after less than a year, because Portugal wouldn’t support it. TVTL shows programmes from Portugal and Brazil without subtitles – how are people who don’t speak Portuguese supposed to understand them?

    You cannot make a language a language of the people simply by making it a language of the State. You might as well learn Latin.

  • I do follow the development of the issue of Portuguese in Timor Leste, especially the latest one on the Major’s outrage on the fact the COurt is sending one of FFDTL member to live long years behind the Prison bar. To me, Major Matan Ruak has his point; His context is clear. he is just criticizing the “system” that seems not benefiting him and his followers. But for many of us who read a bit about him and his writtings, he does write in defending the article 13 of the constitution and that Portuguese should be, in anyway, the language and culture of Timorese.

    The comments of the Parliament members are but political statements in principle, as commoners might say. after all, they themselves know how difficult it is to use Tetum at this point in time in legal matters. ONe legal word represents one’s life and death. it is wise to be able to defend oneself with a languge one is familiar with but we do not have that culture yet. We have the language in makasae or tetum on solving a problem of stealing but to solve stealing, for instance, through a legal means is a new culture for us. And, for that, Portuguese is the closest language, aside from bahasa Indon, not English, of course.

    When one switches on TVTL, one hears peple speaking tetum, a tetum that is mixed with a lot of Portuguese words….not becuase they just like it that way but that it sounds romantic. The other way, when you mix tetum with english, it just sounds off – it is like eating batar tunu with drinking champagne. In short, it does’t match. The tetum is going to develop way it is, no one know its future.Otherwise, can anyone think of an alternative?

    Many youth, my generation, are thinking of English as the solution. With english, there is a greater access to outside world, opportunity, etc. But just as the youth want english as the solution, the younger ones, our younger brtohers at primaries and secondaries want us not to confuse them with new strange language aside from portuguese.

    In short, the issue of languages, communications, education, good governance and many more are challenges facing TL. I still beleive that Tmorese know best what it takes to development and prosperity but not through cultural terrorism. Let’s continue what we have started.

  • Ken Westmoreland

    Interesting points, Acacio.

    I don’t blame young people in East Timor for preferring English – who can blame them? The problem is not that Portuguese-speaking countries are poor and far away, it’s that those countries have very little interest in the Asia-Pacific region, and vice versa. That’s one of the reasons why they are poor!

    However, most East Timorese living in the UK still speak little English, in spite of the fact that it’s an English-speaking country. In fact, one friend of mine had be an interpreter for an East Timorese who didn’t speak English – in court.

    Even East Timor changes to another language, it’ll still need interpreters. Across the border in West Timor, in Indonesia, there are still people who don’t speak Indonesian.

  • Francois Peroni

    Yes, sure. I always find very interesting the anglophone point of view. English!? Who doesn’t speak it? Even the street kids of Cambodia speak it. It’s a very intelectual language indeed! That’s why most anglophones are not able to speak anything else. Anyways, this discussion about an European language in Timor-Leste is getting sick. Nobody writes anything about why Tiwi in not spoken in the NT parlement in Australia or why we can not listen to a single word from Tasmania. S’il-vous plait, give us a break with that usual patronising speech. Anyone in Timor-Leste can learn Portuguese for free, just use! Those MPs should just get some intelectual exercise (without any those bloddy cigarettes).

  • Ken Westmoreland

    The problem is not that Portuguese language lessons in East Timor are not free, the problem is that there are many people who do not speak it or feel the need to use it. I am not a monolingual English speaker, je parle français aussi, so don’t generalise about anglophones. I also speak Portuguese as well as Tetum.

    If anything is patronising, it is the suggestion that Tetum is not good enough. That was the argument used against Dutch or Flemish in Belgium, which was looked down upon by francophones for decades.

    I also advocate an education system for East Timor based on that of Luxembourg, which is multilingual, not monolingual.

    The comparison with Australia is not valid because most people in East Timor are indigenous, not descended from European settlers. Is the language spoken by most people in the Canadian privince of Quebec and indigenous one? Non, c’est le français!

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