Why Should Timor-Leste Turn To Portugal?
Members of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) Portuguese contingent are accompanied by a group of local children as they conduct a security patrol in the Becora district of Dili. 1/Mar/2000.
Image Credit: United Nations Photo

Why Should Timor-Leste Turn To Portugal?

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Jordan Peterson’s piece “Should Timor-Leste Turn to Portugal?” has had the unintended effect of asking a question to which virtually everyone in the country, irrespective of generation or language, will give the same answer: No. (Or, in Tetum and Portuguese, lae and não!) While the idea of restoring constitutional links with Portugal may have been something some opponents of the Indonesian occupation may have dreamed about twenty years ago, it is something with no more support in Lisbon than in Dili.

Leaving aside how distasteful such a relationship would be, however symbolic, Timor-Leste already enjoys links with Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries through the CPLP, a Lusophone equivalent of the Commonwealth and the Francophonie. While it may not be as well-funded or as well-established as its Anglophone and Francophone counterparts, the CPLP offers all its members a framework for cooperation without the colonial baggage. As it happens, its creation twenty years ago was partly a response by Lisbon to Mozambique joining the Commonwealth and Guinea-Bissau joining the Francophonie.

Critics of Timor-Leste’s use of Portuguese as an official language frequently argue that CPLP countries are too far away for it to be practical, although geographical distance is not in itself a problem. After all, Tahiti and New Caledonia remain French, despite people traveling from Paris having to change planes in Los Angeles or Tokyo, but France is a large and wealthy country, whereas Portugal is a small and poor one. Had Portugal been in a position to develop the then Portuguese Timor as France was to develop its Pacific outposts, it would have felt no need to jettison it in 1975.

Interestingly, in 1998, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard suggested to Indonesia’s President B J Habibie that the Matignon Accord, under which France granted New Caledonia wide-ranging autonomy with a built-in review mechanism, could serve as a model for East Timor. Habibie, however, was so incensed by the comparison of his country to a European colonial power that he decided to give the Timorese an immediate vote on independence, rather than go on subsidizing them.

Portugal is not so much handicapped by geography in its relationship with Timor-Leste as it is by its  low profile in the surrounding region, with which its trade and diplomatic links have been limited. Although it might have had a trading empire in the seventeenth century, modern-day Portugal has fewer trade ties with Asia than do other small European countries like Denmark.  Attempts by its national airline, TAP, to fly between Lisbon, Bangkok and Macau in the mid-1990s were soon abandoned, while until recently, there were more Portuguese consulates in France than embassies or consulates in Asia.

It is only in the wake of the European financial crisis that there has been a renewed interest in Asia, illustrated by Emirates now flying twice daily between Lisbon and Dubai, with connections to cities like Singapore and Denpasar in Bali. However, few Portuguese traveling on to Dili will be tourists, as Timor-Leste simply does not have the infrastructure for mass tourism from anywhere. Dili airport’s runway is inadequate for large aircraft and long-haul flights, while the nearest suitable airport in Baucau, the country’s second city, is 120 kilometers away.

The only Portuguese-speaking country with economic and political clout is Brazil, but it punches far below its weight, especially in “soft diplomacy.” Brasilia lacks a cultural body comparable to France’s Alliance Française or even Portugal’s Instituto Camões, and doesn’t have international TV channels like TV5MONDE, which broadcasts French-language programs subtitled instead of dubbed, or news channels like Russia’s RT, Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, or France’s France 24, broadcasting in other languages.

Unlike Angola and Mozambique, which actively supported East Timor’s independence movement, Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in the 19th century and did not have the sense of shared history. In his 1987 memoir, José Ramos Horta, later Timor-Leste’s second president, remarked that a delegation of Brazilian businessmen who visited Indonesia at the time “had probably never heard of East Timor, and couldn’t have cared less if they had.”

In fact, the largest Portuguese-speaking community in Asia is to be found not in former Portuguese colonies like Timor-Leste, Goa or Macau, but in Japan, home to 210,000 Brazilians, accounting for Portuguese-language public signs and cash machine instructions, pay-TV channels, and community radio and newspapers. However, unlike the Timorese, these are generally native Portuguese speakers, or the children of them, and feel a strong sense of affinity with Brazil.

Similarly, thousands of Timorese have already taken advantage of Portuguese nationality laws to work in the European Union, albeit mostly in the U.K., not Portugal. While some officials in Dili bemoan this as a “brain drain,” it also constitutes “money gain,” and in rural areas of Timor-Leste, the smartest houses are those of people with relatives from towns like Oxford, Dungannon, Crewe, Peterborough and Bridgwater sending back remittances.

Although few speak Portuguese, many cannot speak English either, despite it being portrayed as the key to boundless prosperity and modernity, and local authorities often have to use interpreters or translate documents into Tetum, ironically, something state institutions in Dili do not bother to do.

The paradox is that Timor-Leste is linguistically lusified, with Portuguese influencing Tetum, but not linguistically Lusophone, or Portuguese-speaking. On a visit to the country in 2009, I saw a newspaper article in Tetum headed Lian Portuges La Benefisia Estudante or “Portuguese Language Does Not Benefit Students.” Despite more than half of the words being of Portuguese origin, it was comprehensible to most Tetum speakers, even those unable to conjugate a Portuguese verb.

To paraphrase the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore commenting on Indian influence in Indonesia, one sees Portuguese everywhere in Timor-Leste, but one does not recognize it. Tetum speakers can use Portuguese words with no more care as to their origins than Indonesian speakers care about the Sanskrit origins of the words they use.

In any event, the extent of Portuguese cultural influence in Timor-Leste over the centuries is debatable. While the Portuguese, like the French, had an assimilationist colonial policy, in Timor the Dominican missionaries used a form of Tetum to convert people to Catholicism much as their Jesuit counterparts in Brazil originally used a form of Tupi.

Indeed, when Portugal left East Timor in 1975, most of its people were animist, not Catholic, and the phenomenal growth in the Church’s membership during Indonesian rule was prompted by the requirement that all citizens must belong to an officially recognized religion, with Catholicism being seen as the least alien compared to Islam or Protestantism.

Similarly, in Dili until as late as the 1870s, Bazaar Malay was the most important foreign language, rather than Portuguese. In addition, a local Portuguese creole never developed in Portuguese Timor, despite ones being found elsewhere in Asia, including parts of the Indonesian archipelago, even following the establishment of the Dutch East Indies.

Unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch followed a segregrationist colonial policy and, rather than actively promoting their own language in their colony, developed and standardized a form of Malay, which would later become the basis of modern Indonesian.

When Indonesia incorporated East Timor as its “27th province” in 1976, it expanded its education system, in which far more Timorese were educated than in the Portuguese era. Like Dutch before it, Portuguese was vilified as a relic of the colonial era, although unlike Dutch, the association of Portuguese with the independence movement meant it had to be actively suppressed.

As if the task of reintroducing Portuguese after 1999 were not difficult enough, in the face of resentment from those who never learned the language, it was made far worse by the duplication of  already scarce resources. In 2006, the Portuguese teacher João Paulo Esperança wrote that when he first came to Dili, he found teachers from the Instituto Camões, the Portuguese Ministry of Education, and the Federation of Portuguese Universities working in competition and in isolation from one another.

Unlike most other Portuguese in Timor-Leste, Esperança not only speaks Tetum, but also Indonesian, and has espoused ideas which are an anathema to his fellow expats, like the subtitling of Portuguese-language films and TV programs in Indonesian as well as Tetum, and the use of Indonesian as a means of teaching Portuguese.

Timor-Leste’s fledgling radio and TV services are available across the region via an Indonesian satellite, but it is only now that a comprehensive two-way Portuguese-Indonesian dictionary, published in Jakarta, has finally become available.

An Alternative

Sandwiched between two giant neighbors, Indonesia and Australia, Timor-Leste needs to find counterweights to them, but Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries are more likely to serve as cultural rather than economic ones. By happy coincidence, however, the country best served to act as a geopolitical counterweight is the country in Asia with the most interest in the Portuguese-speaking world: China.

Unlike elsewhere in the region, not least Australia and Indonesia, journalists and academics in China do not ritually denounce Timor-Leste’s Portuguese language policy, not least as Beijing uses Macau to host its Forum for Economic and Trade Co-operation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries. China buys soya and ethanol from Brazil, and petroleum and diamonds from Angola, so does not dismiss either as too poor or far away to be of economic importance.

It may seem counterintuitive that China should use the Portuguese language as a Trojan horse to make inroads into Timor-Leste rather than use Mandarin, but the practice of a rising expansionist power using the language of its predecessor is not without precedent; the British East India Company used Persian, inherited from the Moghuls, rather than English, while the Romans used Greek in the eastern part of their empire, rather than Latin.

By contrast, the idea of a country restoring constitutional links with its former colonial master, as Jordan Peterson suggests, is unprecedented and highly improbable.      

Ken Westmoreland is a Tetum and Portuguese translator based in the UK, who has worked for a variety of clients in the UK, Australia and Portugal, including government departments, film companies and universities.

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