Posted by: ellendahat | October 24, 2009

Language and Politic

It is interesting to see multilingual situation in a newly established state such as Timor Leste. Currently this newly-established state has four official languages: Portuguese as the language of Education, Tetun as the lingua franca, and Bahasa Indonesia along with English is used as the working language. Historically, both Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia played big role in East Timor. Long before its integration to Indonesia (prior to 1975) East Timor was under the invasion of Portuguese and therefore, Portuguese was used as the language of education. Most people of East Timor were educated in Portguese during the era. After the integration with Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia becomes the only official language to be used in East Timor and the use of Portuguese was banned by the Government of Indonesia. Now, after its independence from Indonesia, the role of Bahasa Indonesia as the official language ceases and Portuguese is reinstated as the official language of Timor Leste

If Portuguese was the official language during Portuguese invasion and Bahasa Indonesia was the only official language under Indonesian invasion, why should Portuguese be reinstated now as the official language when East Timor has been a free nation? Shouldn’t Tetun be a good representation of the culture and identity of East Timor? If the trace of colonization is to be erased or forgotten, shouldn’t Tetun be the only eligible to this position compared to Portuguese or Bahasa Indonesia? If the reason was that East Timor to have the world language as the official language, why is it Portuguese instead of English?

Does it have something to do with power? Is it also related to the notion that certain languages are better than other languages? Or is it because of the lack or unavailability of school resources in Tetum? Do you think the government of Timor Leste need to consider the standardization of Tetun? Why would it be important?



  1. The Government has sought to standardise the Tetum by Decree and through the National Linguistics Institute.

    It needs to be clear that the official languages of East Timor are Portuguese and Tetum. English and Indonsian are temporary transitional working languages, officially. In fact, the State only publishes its new laws in Portuguese which hardly anyone can read; which is anamolous. And Portuguese is the main language in the Courts (with Portuguese judges who can not read most of the applicable law because it is written in Indonesian).

    Tetum dominates in the National Parliament and public administration although Indonesian is still usefule in those forums as well.

    In the world of commerce and advanced education, it is English and Indonesian that are the most useful in this region. Most commercial signage in Dili is in English or Indonesian – hardly any in Portuguese or Tetun.

    It is all about power. Language has always expressed power relations in human society. The indigenous colonial elite who fled Timor when Indonesia invaded in 1975 were Portuguese speaking. When they returned after independence was achieved, they reinstated Portuguese as a demonstration of their new hegemony in East Timor. Clearly, Tetum should have been entrenched as the principle official and national language.

    In the modern age of transnational communications and broadcasting, Indonesian still has a profound effect in Timor. Children born since independence have a good grasp of Indonesian through the radio and television broadcasts from Indonesia. Articles (especially scientific, social and legal topics) are still written and broadcast in Indonesian.

    In addition to all of that, there are about 35 local languages as well.

  2. Hi, thanks for your comment 🙂

  3. It is an historical fact that Indonesia illegally invaded East Timor on 7 December 1975 and began one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century during which almost 200 000 East Timorese died. You can not deny that truth. It is astonishing that the propaganda machine of the murderous Soeharto regime was so effective at suppressing and distorting the truth and brainwashing the Indonesian people into believing their horrendous lies about what they did in East Timor: mass murders, tortures, rapes, disappearances, starvation and illness killed 186 000 East Timorese. This history – this horrifying chapter in East Timorese history is written in the blood of the Timorese martyres. How can you deny the truth of that terrible suffering and loss of human life, culture and dignity? Indonesians committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and massive human rights abuses throughout the entire period following the invasion of 1975 until 1999 when they destroyed the whole country and left thousands dead as they fled the scene of their crimes and hurried back to Indonesia. What a shameful part of Indonesian history. You must face this horrible truth.

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