Timor Leste: no urban/architectural enquire can be devoid of its social-political context

Timor Leste: no urban/architectural enquire can be devoid of its social-political context
By Beatriz C. Maturana
originally published in arch-peace forum. 2/07/2006

During a short visit to Timor Leste in September 2001, as part of the Australian “Friendship City Relationship” planning team, I was the architect and the de facto translator for my group. As my first language is Spanish, I could easily talk and communicate with East Timorese government officers, students (older than 25), the driver, the lady who cleaned the house and prepared our meals and the people in the markets. Portuguese is close enough to Spanish so communication is easy enough and Tetum, the most widely native language spoken in the country, is impregnated with Portuguese.

Another thing I noticed was, that while trying to communicate in English, the conversation always remained formal and cold. However, the moment we realised we could communicate in “Portu-spanish”, the conversation became more amicable, people relaxed, hugged and smiled. Not withstanding the fact that Australia was quick to recognise the rule of the Indonesia over Timor Leste, there are too many reasons for the Timorese to feel suspicious of USA, UK and Australia and with this the English language(refer to 1 and 2). I wasn’t surprised at the local knowledge of Portuguese, given that the island had being colonised by Portuguese who remained there for almost 500 years, bringing not only the language, but the culture and most importantly, the religion, which after a while - as for anywhere else in the world - becomes a cultural imprint.

On my return I was astonished to find the Australian media portraying the use of Portuguese in Timor Leste at a percentage of as low as 2%. I had to laugh but it also prompted me to investigate: who did I speak with? How could my knowledge of Spanish could have been more useful than English in a country that according to the Australian media only 2% of the population speak Portuguese? The same media also referred in disrespectful terms to the East Timorese’s government decision to pronounce Tetum and Portuguese the two national languages (with English and Indonesian as second languages), as a backward move (3). I was then recommended a book written by an Australian soldier who served in Timor Leste during the WWII and who describes the culture of Timor Leste, from 1941-1943. Callinan reports that Malay (or a form of it) was spoken in West Timor and was of little use for him in East Timor - where most people spoke Tetum and Portuguese and did not understand Malay. “Tetum is a simple language similar to ‘low Malay’, and is quite pleasing to the ear, being based upon church Latin” (4). I then realised that while my enquire initially was architectural, my research couldn’t be devoid of its context - an historical and political context in which Australia has played and continue to play a controversial role, with many more agendas than what our media - whether by ignorance or political agendas - has allowed us to see (5).

It is in this context that we promote the same brick veneer construction used in Victoria Australia for the tropical Timor Leste, while insisting on English labelling for their safety equipment. For the official donor of Australian aid money, AusAID, the main objective is to “improve Australia’s national interest” by giving contracts to domestic companies (6). While Australia has been a ‘generous donor’ it has actually reaped 10 times more in revenues from East Timor than it has given since 1999 (7). According to Oxfam, $1 million a day is being collected in oil and gas from the disputed area of the Timor Sea.

The more independent, distinct and assertive Timor Leste becomes, the more complex it will be for the Australian companies to rightfully gain those future markets. It is in this context in which language represents much more than a local culture. In this context, the Australian media has reduced the culture of Timor Leste to almost nothing in order to guarantee “Australian National Interest”. Soon after the independence of Timor Leste, the donor nations committed US$5 million dollars to assist Timor Lester. Today, only US $2 million have been honoured. What does this level of assistance mean for Australia? How many Australian houses can we build with US $5 million, 10? 20? 40? And only a fraction of that is what our Australian assistance represent.

1. “East Timor Revisited: Ford, Kissinger and the Indonesian invasion, 1975-76”. The National Security Archive, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB62/
2. Lloyd Parry, Richard. “Government lied to cover up war crimes in 1975 invasion of island” Times Online, November 30, 2005. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25689-1897195,00.html
3. For examples of these media attacks refer to: http://www.asianlang.mq.edu.au/INL/press.html.
4. Callinan, Bernard (1953). Independent Company, The Australian Army in East Timor 1941-1943. William Heinemann, Australia, p 20.
5. Maturana, Beatriz C. "The Buka-Hatene Community Centre: Friends of Baucau's Project to Restore a Community Building". Studies in Languages and Cultures of East Timor. Instituto Nacional de Linguistica, Dili, vol. 7 (2005) pp:47-74. A brief version is available at: http://www.architectsforpeace.org/editorial/Buka%20Hatene-JE.pdf
6. Anderson, Tim (2002-06-01). Aid Watch Briefing Note: The World Bank in East Timor. Aid Watch. http://www.aidwatch.org.au/index.php?current=24&display=aw00008&display_item=1
7. Oxfam. May 20 2004. Australia pushing East Timor to brink of becoming failed state. Oxfam. http://oxfam.org.uk/press/releases/etimor2000504.htm


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