By Ken Westmoreland
May 31, 2009
For many years, there have been two things close to my heart: promoting the Portuguese language, and support for East Timor, which goes back to when it was under Indonesian occupation, following Portugal’s abandonment of its ‘overseas province’ in 1975.
During the past decade since East Timor finally got self-determination, my faith in both has been put to the test. It’s a bit like being a parent of Siamese twins: you love them both, but it would make life so much easier for them, and for you, if they weren’t joined at the hip.
For many years, I have watched with amusement at the sudden interest shown by some Brazil in East Timor: journalist Rosely Forganes, who spent a year in East Timor, wrote the book Queimado, Queimado, Mas Agora Nosso while telenovela star turned film director Luclia Santos made the documentary Timor Lorosae: O Massacre Que O Mundo Não Viu. They and others have tried to evoke some historic link between the two countries and their peoples, when in reality most people in Brazil know and care as much about East Timor as people in the US know and care about the Solomon Islands.
Indeed, how much do Brazilians know about Southeast Asia, never mind East Timor?
While they are acquainted with Japan, because of migration in both directions, and China, because of growing trade links, Southeast Asia is an unknown quantity, uncharted territory, if not a ‘no-go’ area.
While it made sympathetic noises about East Timor at the UN, Brazil always maintained diplomatic relations with Indonesia, although not without some friction. In 1987, Jos Ramos Horta, now President, wrote:
A Brazilian trade mission to Indonesia was called off abruptly. Brazilian businessman were told that their Government’s position on East Timor was hampering trade relations between the two countries. Sure enough, the businessmen (who had probably never heard of East Timor and couldn’t have cared less if they had) carried the message to Itamaraty. Arch-pragmatists, the Brazilians tried to play both sides: pleasing the Lusophone community by sponsoring the [UN] draft; placating the Indonesians by letting them know that Brazil would not ask other countries to support it.”
However, were the Brazilians really that interested in trade links with Indonesia back then, any more than they were in supporting East Timor’s right to self-determination? I doubt it. Perhaps conservative and anti-communist military leaders like Geisel and Figuereido would have found much in common with Suharto, but would they have seen any point in meeting him, or vice versa?
In February this year I visited East Timor, or ‘Timor Leste’ as it is now widely known, even by people who do not speak Portuguese, and had the pleasure of meeting Brazilians working there. The best known Brazilian was the late Srgio Vieira de Mello, head of the UN’s transitional administration. He managed to tread carefully on the issue of East Timor’s official language policy, but gained a great deal of respect from Timorese by his efforts to learn Tetum, the main language of the country, something no Portuguese governor ever did.
It certainly helps that Tetum, which is also an official language, is heavily influenced by Portuguese, not least in its modern vocabulary, making it easy for Portuguese speakers to pick up. While most Timorese still do not speak Portuguese, it’s worth remembering that eighty years ago, only five per cent of people in what is now Indonesia spoke what is now called Indonesian. Essentially a form of Malay, it was no more intelligible to most people across the sprawling archipelago than Portuguese is to most people in Western Europe.
East Timor needs a counterweight to Indonesia and Australia, and it helps that the country in the region best placed to play that role, China, sees the Portuguese language as an asset, rather than a handicap, having been actively cultivating ties with Brazil and Angola because of its need for raw materials.
If only Brazil saw its language the same way. It is almost as if it has an inferiority complex about Portuguese, a symptom of wishing it had been a colony of somewhere other than Portugal. However, irrespective of whether it will ever be East Timor’s language, Portuguese is Brazil’s language, and it needs to be more assertive in promoting it worldwide.
Unfortunately, when I have written (in Portuguese) to ministries in Brasilia or to Brazilian embassies abroad, to enquire about their efforts to promote the language, I have found them even more inefficient than those in Lisbon, and have only once received a reply. While Portugal’s Instituto Cames is also inefficient (and does the language of Cames no favours) there is no equivalent Brazilian body. To paraphrase the old joke, Brazilian Portuguese is the language of the country of the future, and always will be. In other words, it’s the language of the country that doesn’t want to grow up.
The biggest problem with the Portuguese language in East Timor is not so much that people there are unable or unwilling to learn it, but that the Brazilians are so inexperienced in teaching it to speakers of other languages. For example, there are still no Indonesian-Portuguese or Portuguese-Indonesian dictionaries, meaning that Brazilian teachers in East Timor have to use two dictionaries in order to decipher Indonesian textbooks that are still widely used.
By contrast, there are plenty of books, including dictionaries, for Indonesian speakers wanting to learn Spanish, may of which are being put ot good use by East Timorese going to study medicine in Cuba, and more embarrassingly, there is now a Swedish-Indonesian dictionary. But what has Brazil done to remedy this? Nothing.
When it comes to promoting the Portuguese language in Asia, Brazil should have considerable advantages over Portugal, which is seen as a country only interested in preserving relics of its imperial past. In fact, it is thanks to Brazil, not Portugal, that as many people in Asia speak Portuguese as they do – there are nearly 300 000 Portuguese speakers in Japan, more than in East Timor, Macau and Goa combined.
Brazil no more needs the CPLP, the Lusophone community of nations, to promote the Portuguese language, any more than the US needs the Commonwealth, the successor to the British Empire, to promote English. The only worthwhile thing that might ever come from the CPLP, an international TV channel, is nowhere near fruition, and there is more likelihood of China launching a Portuguese-language channel.
In any event, the Commonwealth is a discredited hypocritical talking shop, before which the UK subjects itself to moral lectures from corrupt and despotic leaders of its former colonies, or in the case of Mozambique, one of Portugal’s.
Indeed, Brazil should no more have to harmonise Portuguese spelling with Portugal than the US should have to harmonise English spelling with the UK. In Southeast Asia, both American and British spelling are used, often interchangeably, but this has never been made learning English any less popular. However, Brazil should call Singapore ‘Singapura’, not ‘Cingapura’, which just looks silly.
Brazil does not suffer from that historical or colonial baggage, and can promote Portuguese as it should be promoted, as the language of a regional power that wants to be taken seriously on the world stage. However, in order to do that, Brazil has to take the rest of the world seriously, and that includes Southeast Asia.
True, Brasilia has more embassies in the region than Lisbon, but how do its diplomats fill their day? Having lived in Singapore, I had to laugh when the Brazilian Embassy recently came out with a brochure called ‘It’s Time For Brazil In Singapore’. By all means, but why only now? When I went to an international school in Singapore, I met people from all over the world, but no Brazilians, not even the children of diplomats. Many years later I learned the reason why: Itamaraty was too tight-fisted to pay their fees.
Brazilians certainly need to become more knowledgeable about Indonesia, the regional giant. It may have the world’s largest Muslim population, but it is not Saudi Arabia. Bali, where two Brazilians were among those killed in the bombings by Jemaah Islamiyah in October 2002, is predominantly Hindu. While Al Qaeda denounced Srgio Vieira de Mello as a ‘crusader’ who ‘extracted a part of the Islamic land’, the architect of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, General Benny Murdani, was Catholic. Mari Alkatiri, East Timor’s first Prime Minister, was a Muslim.
Indeed, while Indonesian is still viewed with hostility by some Portuguese-educated Timorese as the language of the oppressor, many words in Indonesian are from Portuguese – gereja, sepatu, garpu, roda, pesta, palsu, terigu, keju, mentega, lelang, meja, jendela, boneka and numerous others, not to mention the name of an Indonesian island, Flores.
And it may surprise many Brazilians to learn that Indonesia has made a contribution, if only a small one, to one of their neighbours, Suriname. Many people there are descended from Javanese migrant labourers brought by the Dutch a century ago, and who speak a form of Javanese, despite having had contact with Indonesia for generations.
For many years, the only Brazilian contribution to the region has been telenovelas, although as these are invariably dubbed (Escrava Isaura in Chinese, Sinha Moa in Malay and Terra Nostra in Indonesian) people there could be forgiven for thinking that Brazilians did not speak Portuguese at all.
However, audiences now have the chance to watch them in the original language, as Record TV is now available across Asia via satellite, offering a long overdue alternative to the dreary output of Portugal’s RTPi. But if English language channels can be subtitled in in local languages, then why not Brazilian ones? Or indeed, TVTL in East Timor, to which TV Globo has provided programming free of charge?
In the past year, Lula has visited Indonesia, and his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has visited Brazil, but how many Brazilians and Indonesians will follow suit? Not many, and talk of ‘south-south cooperation’ remains just that: talk. Unlike China, which is a resource-hungry economy, Indonesia is resource-rich and sees little advantage in forging trade links with Brazil. However, now that it is possible to fly between São Paulo and Jakarta via Dubai, travel between the two regional giants is a lot faster and cheaper than travelling via Europe.
Ignoring other regions of the world is a classic sign of third world status, and of all the four BRIC countries, Brazil is still the most inward-looking. While its decision to become involved with East Timor ten years ago may have been naãve, the Brazilians I know who work there show great affection for, and commitment to, the country, and do not see their role as clearing up another country’s mess, be it Portugal’s or Indonesia’s. And, more importantly, it has at least pulled Brazil away from its navel, into a region of the world that it has traditionally ignored, which should awaken it to new possibilities, both cultural and economic.
Ken Westmoreland is a Portuguese and Tetum translator based in the UK, who has been travelling in East Timor and Indonesia.