Colonization, Decolonization and Integration: Language Policies in East Timor, Indonesia

- by Nancy Melissa Lutz

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This version: 3 April 1995

Colonization, Decolonization and 'Integration': Language Policies in East Timor, Indonesia

Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association Chicago, November 20, 1991

by Nancy Melissa Lutz (1)

This paper is an attempt to disentangle the complex strands of multilingualism in East Timor, both historically and contemporarily, in terms of the relations of Portuguese, Indonesian, Tetum, and the indigenous local languages of East Timor.

In light of recent events in East Timor, especially the two recent massacres of Timorese civilians by the Indonesian military, it might seem almost trivial to talk about an issue like language policy. However, as I will try to show, language in East Timor is absolutely critical to understanding the contemporary situation in East Timor, both in terms of the repression felt by the indigenous Timorese, and in terms of the jumpiness, if not outright paranoia, felt by the Indonesian administration. Obviously, language alone cannot explain why Indonesian soldiers would mount a well-planned attack and open machine-gun fire on 3,000 civilians, including children, attending a memorial service at a cemetery in Dili, but language is part of the more subtle dynamics that engender such actions, and it is these more subtle dynamics which I would like to explore today.

First, some brief background on the history of East Timor: Portuguese outposts were established in East Timor in the mid-to- late 1500's, as part of the Portuguese attempt to gain control of the spice trade in Indonesia. The outposts in Timor were established primarily to facilitate Portuguese access to the sandalwood trade, while their major fort, port, and religious seminary were located on the island of Solor and at Larantuka on the island of Flores further west.

The Dutch rapidly followed the Portuguese into eastern Indonesia, and for the next 300 years, the area was contested back and forth between the Dutch and the Portuguese, with the real local power being held by a Portuguese mestizo class called the 'Black Portuguese' or Topasses. This creole mestizo class was extremely important in both Larantuka and East Timor, and to this day plays an important role in the local communities of both areas.

Finally, after extensive wars and negotiations, in 1859, Larantuka and Solor were ceded to the Dutch, and the Portuguese moved their Indonesian headquarters to Dili in East Timor. Colonial control, such as it was, in East Timor was gradually extended throughout the 19th and 20th centuries -- coffee was introduced as a cash crop, for example, in 1815 -- and East Timor remained a Portuguese colony until 1975. (In fact, it has never been officially declared not a Portuguese colony, and its status comes up for discussion almost every year at the United Nations.)

In 1974, though, with the change of political regime in Lisbon, Portugal decided to decolonize. Its two major colonies, Angola and Mozambique, became independent, and the fate of East Timor was up for grabs.

Internally, within East Timor, there were three main political parties, representing three main directions of development:

For various reasons too complex to go into here, civil war broke out in August 1975, Fretilin declared East Timor's independence on November 28, 1975, and on December 7, 1975, less than two weeks later, Indonesia took matters into her own hands and invaded, formally annexing East Timor and declaring, on July 17, 1976, that East Timor "had decided to 'integrate' with Indonesia", much as Kuwait was 'integrated' into Iraq. Since 1976, therefore, East Timor has de facto become the 27th province of Indonesia, although as I mentioned, its status has never been officially resolved.

While the fifteen years since 1976 have seen extensive military campaigns and an accelerated push for 'development', the 'integration' process has never been smooth. The period from 1975-1980, especially, was marked by massive military campaigns, forced relocations, and starvation. Estimates are that as much as one-third of East Timor's population of roughly 600,000 may have starved or been killed during that time. Even today, ten years later, there is continuing small-scale but effective guerilla resistance, and considerably more widespread popular resentment and "everyday forms of resistance", even in the face of increasing government repression and intimidation. And it is here, with the "weapons of the weak", in Scott's phrase (cf. Scott 1985) -- the "everyday forms of resistance" -- that we return centrally and critically to language as an important issue.

Linguistically, East Timor is a complex multilingual mosaic. There are twelve mutually unintelligible indigenous languages, four Austronesian and eight non-Austronesian, which can be further subdivided into 35 dialects and sub-dialects.

The Austronesian language group consists of:

The Indonesian government, incidentally, while formally acknowledging the existence -- and to some extent, as part of its official national language policy, the right to exist -- of these twelve Timorese languages, also likes to talk about them as 'dialects', which denigrates their status as autonomous languages and also suggests that they are somehow 'backward', 'aberrant' dialects of Indonesian.

In addition to -- or perhaps, superimposed over -- these twelve indigenous languages, Tetum acts as a kind of lingua franca among the Timorese population. It is interesting to note as well that while the Indonesian government in no way acknowledges the role of Tetum as an indigenous lingua franca, the Indonesian government radio station, Radio Republik Indonesia, does broadcast certain 'key' programs in Tetum at particular hours of the day (cf. Provincial Government of East Timor 1986: 81).

Prior to 1975, Portuguese was the official government language in East Timor, and as such, was primarily the language of Church and State. (And it should be noted that Church and State have had a very close association throughout Portuguese colonial history.) The ability to read and write Portuguese was a prerequisite for Portuguese citizenship, and Portugal's assimilado policy encouraged cultural and linguistic assimilation. Only a small percentage of Timorese were 'assimilados' or 'civilizados', however:

In 1950, out of a total resident population in East Timor of 442,378, the ethnic or 'racial' (in Portuguese terms) breakdown of the population was as follows:

According to these figures, therefore, Portuguese-speaking civilizados and mesticos together represented less than one percent of the total population.

The importance of these two groups was far greater than their sheer numbers suggest, however, especially by 1975 when more of the indigenous Timorese elite would have had a Portuguese education. Despite their small numbers, this Portuguese-speaking elite emerged as the major actors in and spokesmen for a post- colonial East Timor, and they still play an important role as either leaders of the resistance (both within East Timor and outside) or as key intermediaries within the Indonesian administration.

It is especially interesting in this regard that, while Fretilin encouraged local-level literacy campaigns in Tetum, on a Paolo Freire model, in the brief period from 1974-1976, the nationalist leaders themselves were primarily Portuguese speakers, and they declared Portuguese as the official language of an independent East Timor, "at least for the time being" (cf. Jolliffe 1978).

Up through 1975, schooling was also in Portuguese. Most schools in East Timor were run by the Catholic Church, and Portuguese was the language of instruction. (In some of the stricter Catholic private schools, students were punished for speaking Tetum, Chinese, or other indigenous languages, even among themselves outside of the classroom.) Chinese was taught in schools outside of the official Catholic school system, but there was no formal instruction in Tetum or any indigenous Timorese language.

After 1975, Indonesia moved rapidly to abolish the use of Portuguese and to establish Indonesian in its place as the new 'national' language of East Timor. Interestingly, however, the way in which Indonesian is mandated reflects not a 'nationalist' concern, or even a focus on 'citizenship', as in the colonial Portuguese era, but a focus on control and on what Foucault would call 'governmentality' (cf. Burchell et. al, eds., 1991).

This is seen most explicitly in the Indonesian government linking of language and education. Since 1975, Indonesia has engaged in a flurry, if not frenzy, of school-building in East Timor, and they have widely publicized the fact that they built more schools in East Timor between 1975 and 1980 than Portugal had built in the one hundred years prior to 1975. School statistics have, in fact, jumped exponentially in East Timor: in 1976, there were 47 elementary schools, 2 junior high schools, and no senior high schools. By 1986, there were 498 elementary schools, 71 junior high schools, and 19 senior high schools. The number of pupils, likewise, jumped from 13,501 in elementary school, 315 in junior high school, and none in senior high school in 1976 to 109,844 in elementary school, 17,351 in junior high school, and 2,948 in senior high school by 1986. And the number of teachers rose correspondingly: from 499 elementary school teachers, 10 junior high school teachers, and no senior high school teachers in 1976 to 2,978 elementary school teachers, 322 junior high school teachers, and 79 senior high school teachers in 1986 (Provincial Government of East Timor 1986). Of even greater interest to me, as an analyst of Indonesian political rhetoric -- and linked again to Foucault's ideas on governmentality -- is how the Indonesian government itself characterizes its school-building efforts in East Timor. In its own words, school-building in East Timor is integrally linked to security:

"Since the beginning of the integration, the Government of the Republic of Indonesia has emphasized the need for synchronized actions in the administration of government and development efforts on the one hand and the maintenance of law and order on the other" (Department of Information 1984: 33).

In words that could almost have come from Foucault himself, this publication continues:

"By way of illustration, it may be mentioned that the establishment of Public Health Service Centres, schools, and the construction of roads, etc. has contributed to the speedy restoration of law and order in the community. These activities have served as an effective deterrent against influence and propaganda carried out by a small group of anti-Indonesians" (ibid.).

Whenever language policy is mentioned with regard to East Timor, it is always linked to schools and to education policy, and this in turn is always linked to security. Language in East Timor is integrally tied to the maintenance of law and order.

This becomes even more critical in light of the fact that, according to the 1980 census, less than 30% of the population of East Timor spoke -- or understood -- Indonesian (Department of Information 1984: 39). Given that it is probably also the case that less than 30% of the Indonesian administration in East Timor (if we also include the military) speaks or understands either Tetum or Portuguese, this puts the communicative situation in East Timor at somewhat of an impasse.

The role of the Catholic Church here is also an important factor. While under the Portuguese, the Catholic Church was a major proponent of the Portuguese language and administration, it has not played the same role for the Indonesians.

The Catholic Church in East Timor ceased to be part of the Portuguese Church in 1975, as part of the process of decolonization, and is now administered direct from Rome. It has staunchly refused to become part of the Indonesian Church, despite the Indonesian government's efforts at 'integrasi' (cf. Burdiardjo and Liong 1984).

Linguistically, the Church has also defied Indonesianization. As Budiardjo and Liong report:

"In 1981 the Indonesian administration tried to force the Church to accept linguistic 'integrasi' by stipulating that Portuguese should no longer be used during Mass and should be replaced by Indonesian. The clergy rejected this request and asked the Vatican for permission for Portuguese to be replaced by Tetum. The Vatican gave its approval in October 1981. This change in language has helped integrate the Church even more closely with the community" (1984: 121).

Despite the use of Tetum in Masses, however (and possibly the more recent use of Indonesian by Indonesian-speaking clergy), Portuguese remains the language of external communication for the Catholic Church, as it does for the anti-Indonesian resistance. Given how few Indonesian military or administrative personnel speak Portuguese, this is a major thorn in their flesh, making censorship of external communications, for example, quite difficult. It also creates an antagonism towards, and a suspicion of, Portuguese in East Timor that is quite different from the attitude towards Dutch, for example, as the ex-colonial language of Indonesia.

Initially, one might think that the role of Portuguese and Dutch as ex-colonial languages would be quite similar. In Indonesia, however, while Dutch was denigrated as the language of the colonialists, it was also the language -- or one of the languages -- of the Indonesian nationalist elite. While they rejected Dutch, therefore, and considered anyone who continued to speak Dutch as a reactionary, or hopelessly out of date, they still understood Dutch. Because the Indonesian government in East Timor does not understand Portuguese, continued use of Portuguese is to them much more of a threat. Not only does it represent a challenge to Indonesian governmentality, it also represents a 'secret' language, opaque to the Indonesian administration. Portuguese, therefore, is much more highly suspected -- more analogous, perhaps, to the use of Dutch in Indonesia during the Japanese Occupation. From an East Timorese point of view, in fact, the analogy is quite fitting, as many people in East Timor feel they are under a military occupation. The Indonesian military, for their part, also act like agents of a military occupation. Despite ostensibly 'nationalist' rhetoric, 'development' in East Timor is not a 'nationalist' or a 'citizenship' type program of development. Rather, it is a program of 'development' through and for 'governmentality', and language policy is an integral part of that program.

Given such dynamics, therefore, perhaps it is not so hard to understand, after all, why the Indonesian military would feel compelled not just to surveil, but to actually open fire, on a Catholic memorial service in East Timor.

(1) Department of Anthropology University of Oregon Eugene, OR. 97405


Budiardjo, Carmel, and Liem Soei Liong 1984 The War Against East Timor. London: Zed Books.

Burchell, Graham, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds., 1991 The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

East Timor, Provincial Government 1986 East Timor: A Decade of Development. Dili: The Provincial Government of East Timor.

Jolliffe, Jill 1978 East Timor: Nationalism and Colonialism. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Republic of Indonesia, Department of Information 1984 East Timor Today. Jakarta: Republic of Indonesia, Department of Information.

Scott, James C. 1985 Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Weatherbee, Donald E. 1966 Portuguese Timor: An Indonesian Dilemma. Asian Survey, 6 (Dec.).