Global Policy Forum

E Pluribus E. Timor


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post
July 13, 2000

Lakan Feralafaek, one of a score of money changers who ply their trade on the sidewalk in front of East Timor's only bank, is more than happy to exchange foreign notes for the new official currency, the U.S. dollar. But Feralafaek, who carries a thick wad of American, Australian, Portuguese and Indonesian bills, has a blunt warning for visitors.

"Nobody uses the American dollar here," he said. "You can't buy anything in the market with it."

Instead, most people still use the Indonesian rupiah, even though they almost uniformly despise the Indonesian government for its 24-year occupation of East Timor and its role in the wave of violence that followed the territory's vote for independence last August. East Timorese have shunned the dollar in favor of the volatile rupiah--the world's worst-performing currency this year--out of both familiarity and a fear that salaries will fall and prices will go up if they convert to the greenback.

"People do not know the value of a dollar," said Nino Pinto, 23, a rice vendor here in East Timor's capital. "If they see that something costs a thousand rupiah, they know how much that is. But if it was in dollars, they would have no idea."

The United Nations, which is governing the country until next year's scheduled elections, selected the dollar as the official currency earlier this year in consultation with East Timorese independence leaders, reasoning that the dollar would provide a strong and stable monetary system and a symbolic break from Indonesia.

Similar logic was used to determine East Timor's national language. The official Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia, had been taught in schools and used for government business since Indonesia occupied East Timor in 1975 and annexed it a year later. The widely used local language, Tetun, has a limited vocabulary and is spoken nowhere else in the world. So East Timorese leaders and the United Nations opted for the tongue of the territory's former colonial rulers, Portuguese.

But the vast majority of people in the country do not know Portuguese. Conversations at Dili's central market, for instance, are in Tetun and Bahasa Indonesia. Newspapers here are printed in those two languages. Even at a recent conference on East Timor's future, the moderator told the audience that "we've chosen Tetun as the language to be used today so that everyone can understand."

The continued popularity of the rupiah and of languages other than Portuguese illustrate the challenges in forging a national identity for East Timor after nearly a quarter-century of Indonesian control and more than 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule. The selection of Portuguese, and, to a lesser extent, the dollar, has ignited a broad debate among people here about just what it means to be East Timorese and to what extent the world's newest nation should shed parts of its past.

Does being independent, people here wonder, mean everything associated with Indonesia should be chucked? Are older independence leaders romanticizing the colonial era? Will young people and others who do not speak Portuguese be shut out of the task of rebuilding the nation?

"If we chose the Indonesian language, how different would we be from Indonesia?" asked Joao Carrascalo, a senior official with the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), the country's government in-waiting. "Would the world be willing to support East Timor if we were the same as Indonesia?"

Portugal, Carrascalo argued, has helped to shape the Timorese identity. "We have a strong and long link with Portugal," he said. "They were benevolent colonialists. It makes sense for us to speak the language."

But for East Timorese under 30, who were taught Bahasa Indonesia in school and who make up the majority of the population, the choice of Portuguese is alienating. "Nobody except the old people speak Portuguese," said Nino Pereira, 26, leader of the youth wing of the CNRT. "If that's what they want to speak, how are we supposed to be involved in the new government?"

Pereira and other young people maintain that East Timor should pick two official languages: Tetun and English. English makes sense, he said, because it is the language of international commerce and because the country likely will have a large U.N. contingent on its soil for many years to come. Tetun, he argued, is the closest to Timor's lingua franca. About 60 percent of the population speak it, while only 10 percent--most of them older people--speak Portuguese.

"The old people have this nostalgia with Portugal, but they have to realize that we are moving forward," Pereira said. "The colonial days are over."

He and many others here also would like Bahasa Indonesia--which is spoken by as many as 90 percent of people under 35--to be officially recognized, but they acknowledge that would be a tough sell to the older generation of fighters for independence. "We have to show the world that we have our own language, our own culture," said Elizio Pinto, 26, a university student whose studies in Indonesia were revoked after the East Timorese independence vote.

The members of CNRT's youth wing want the choice of an official language put to a national referendum, which, they believe, would result in selection of something other than Portuguese. If Portuguese is chosen, a massive reeducation effort will be necessary. School curriculums will have to be changed; middle-aged people will have to find some way to pick up the language.

Portugal has sent a small group of teachers, but officials here say teaching most of East Timor's more than 700,000 people a new language will require much greater resources. Some Timorese leaders contend that money and effort should be devoted instead to rebuilding the devastated country.

The selection of the dollar has been less controversial, but it still has kindled opposition. Despite a U.N. public-education campaign, most people are still confused by the greenback. There also is a shortage of $1 and $5 bills and no coins, all but preventing dollars from being used for everyday transactions. A $20 bill buys more bananas than a family could eat in a year.

The U.N. finance chief here, Fernanda Borges, said last week that he is arranging to provide $300,000 in coins and $1 million in small bills to facilitate small transactions and increase familiarity with quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. The United Nations will pay its local staff in U.S. currency to get it into circulation, she said.

But perhaps the most significant reason many Timorese are avoiding the dollar is the exchange rate. In Indonesia and on world currency markets, one dollar is worth about 9,000 rupiah, but in Dili it buys only about 8,000. There also are wide price discrepancies for goods bought in dollars.

There is only one bank operating in Dili now, Bank Nacional Ultramarino of Portugal, which has set the low official exchange rate. Borges said the United Nations is trying to encourage other banks to open branches in the country to spur exchange-rate competition.

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