Saturday, April 28, 2007
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Outgoing President Xanana Gusmao is one who understands the difficulty of the East Timor's language dilemna. He favours Portuguese - but speaks Bahasa and English.
Dili, East Timor - Portuguese is one of the two official languages in East Timor, but you can hardly hear it spoken in the streets of the young nation.
The tiny country was a Portuguese colony for more than three centuries, but only an estimated 5% of its one million people now speak the European language.
After Lisbon cut the territory free, East Timor was occupied by neighboring Indonesia for 24 years before gaining full independence in 2002.
Under Indonesian rule, Portuguese was suppressed and speakers of the language now mostly come from the political elite or are older people educated in the colonial era.
Despite government attempts to push the use of Portuguese as an official language, Indonesian remains the main language of instruction in secondary schools and universities, along with native Tetum, the other national language.
Many of East Timor's leaders left for exile in Portugal or its colonies before or soon after the territory was invaded by Indonesian forces and many of them do not speak Indonesian.
They consider Portuguese to be the language of resistance.
But the government's decision to enshrine Portuguese in the Constitution is criticized by some, who see it as short-sighted.
They say many young people educated under Indonesian rule have been denied state jobs because they lack Portuguese skills.
"This is the biggest type of discrimination practiced by the government," said Suzanna Cardoso, a Timorese journalist.
"The government does not recognize the contribution of those educated under the Indonesian system to the struggle for independence," she told Reuters.
Cardoso said English would be more useful for East Timor.
"Why do we have to use Portuguese? Portuguese-speaking countries are poor and they are far from us," she said.
Jumble of languages
Tetum is used in daily interaction but some experts say it is mainly a spoken language and has to be developed further for wider usage.
But the issue is sensitive and a Cabinet minister has been criticised for only speaking Portuguese and never using Tetum in public.
Signboards at government offices are written in Portuguese, although for most Timorese it remains a foreign language they don't understand.
Newspapers run articles in Tetum and Indonesian side-by-side. Indonesian TV soap operas are also hugely popular.
"I don't know any Portuguese. I'd rather learn English than Portuguese," said Ano Pereira, a driver and high school graduate.
The language issue was raised by some of the eight candidates contesting April 9 presidential elections, with one promising to ditch Portuguese if he won the presidency.
News conferences during the elections were held in four languages -- English, Tetum, Portuguese and Indonesian -- adding to the difficulty of coordinating the fairly chaotic polls.
No candidate in the election won a big enough majority to win outright and a run-off is expected to be held next month.
At the National University of East Timor, teachers give lectures and students write their theses in Indonesian.
"Most of our textbooks are in Indonesian and most lecturers don't speak Portuguese," management student Julio Rangel said as he sat at the hallway of a white-painted campus building, a Catholic seminary during colonial times.
A report released by the United Nations Development Programme in 2002 said 82% of East Timor's one million populations spoke Tetum, while 43% could speak Indonesian.
Only 5% spoke Portuguese.
The government, dominated by the Fretilin party that spearheaded the struggle against Indonesian rule, has brought in teachers mostly from Portugal to teach in elementary schools.
However, there are concerns that once pupils finish elementary education, they will have to enroll at a secondary school where teachers don't speak Portuguese.
"This is going to be a big problem. These students don't speak Indonesian and their teachers don't know Portuguese," said Julio Thomas Pinto, who teaches at two universities in the East Timor capital Dili.
The head of East Timor's National Institute of Linguistics, Dr Geoffrey Hull, defends the adoption of Portuguese as a national language.
"Anyone with the slightest familiarity with East Timor's history knows that the Portuguese language has long been central to the national identity," he said on the institute's website.
"East Timor needs both Tetum and Portuguese to be fully itself," he said.
But Silvino Pinto Cabral, an economics lecturer at the national university, is not convinced.
"This policy of imposing a foreign language will not work. I doubt that in 50 years the government will be able to make the whole nation proficient in Portuguese," he said.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Papua's remarkable highland peaks. Below the mist is the Grasberg mine carved out of the mountains. This is the traditional lands of the Amungme people. According to legend these mountains are the sacred home of their ancestral grandmother who guards the balance of nature. Freeport has been accused of disturbing this natural balance.
In an unprecedented action, thousands of workers from a giant US-run mine in Indonesia's remote Papua province have staged a protest demanding better wages and welfare.
The workers come from the Grasberg gold and copper mine high up in the mountainous interior (see photo above). They demonstrated outside the Indonesian headquarters of Freeport-McMoRan, which is in the lowlands about 70 kilometres downstream from the minesite. News reports say the protest was peaceful , but the thousands of demonstrators were flanked by Indonesian police at all times.
The workers have been gathering in Timika from surrounding villages and towns demanding to speak with a
The firm has disputed the claims.
Members of the Amungme people who live downstream from the Freeport mine project. In 2000 I reported on a mine spill which wiped out part of the Amungme village of Banti. You can read about this story and the struggles of Papua's people in my book Running Amok
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Northern Australia is producing some unique writers - and Phil certainly is unique.
He's the first featured "Writers Interview" on my website.
Here's a taste:
Phil O’Brien spent his early years on Tempe Downs Station 250 km’s southwest of Alice Springs, in the red heart of Australia. Decades on, and several hundred adventures later Phil still roams the outback living a uniquely nomadic life, it’s a life full of challenges, panorama’s and camaraderie…and it’s a journey that has taken him to places and put him in situations that most other Australians living amongst the security of the suburbs ever get to experience...
How did you get started?
It was all pretty fluky how I got into writing, or maybe it was fate I’m not sure. I was at a party half cut sharing yarns as you do, jamming as much Victoria Bitter down my throat as I could, when this bloke came up and reckoned if I could somehow document all those stories in print people might really enjoy the read.
His name was David Harris, a professional writer and he really encouraged me. It was such a ‘way out’ proposition to start with, but once I chewed on it for a while I thought… why not?
For Phil's story and full interview click here.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
So the people of East Timor have once again gone to the vote. Although it's likely there will be no clear winner in this presidential poll, the real story is perhaps that despite the precarious conditions, voting was peaceful.
One keen ET observer, Rob Wesley Smith reckons the media - and he singles out the ABC - have been obsessed with cheap headlines suggesting violence is the order of the day. This didn't eventuate, so he has written his own instructive sample of how a short radio news report should be written:
"Despite many fears and street gang violence over the last year, the election period has been remarkably violence free, save for some small incidents of rival political factions throwing stones. These incidents and suggested intimidation at times is regrettable, but under the existing circumstances of East Timor's history, gross poverty, gross lack of education and literacy, generalised hunger, lack of media in remote areas, and a short official electioneering period during the end of the Wet season when remote access is difficult, most seasoned observers have been pleased and optimistic of a generally free and fair election today Monday."
Meanwhile another keen observer Dili-gence has this pithy insight into the election scene in East Timor's capital:
"Dili is crawling with international election monitors (ie scrutineers, observers), many wearing fishing jackets. The award for the most stylish fishing jacket goes to the EU team, followed by Japan and the UNDP jacket in last place."
Monitoring elections in East Timor has a rugged history. The photo (at left) shows former Australian deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer and the author, preparing for a 'live' ABC TV news interview on the day of East Timor's independence vote in August 1999. Tim was leading Australia's election monitoring team, and he was fuming. He had just visited a polling station in the volatile town of Liquisa, only to witness an Australian 60 minutes TV crew asking would-be voters (including militiamen) how they were going to vote. The incident nearly caused a riot. You can read about this day - and the tumultuous days that followed - in my book Running Amok.