01 April 2011

On the use of Portuguese in the National Parliament

ETLJB 01 April 2011 - It was announced this week that the East Timor Parliament had decided to hold plenary proceedings in the Portuguese language at least once a month.

In East Timor, it is well known that the vast majority of the population does not speak, read or write in Portuguese. Tetum, Indonesian and local languages are the principle languages of the community while Portuguese is the language of the political elite who seized the state apparatus upon the transfer of sovereignty in 2002 and who imposed constitutional and governance regimes that were dominated by a language not understood by the people. The use of Portuguese in the parliamentary proceedings is another manifestation of this phenomenon - a quest to maintain a political hegemony that is essentially undemocratic.

The Parliament, the Government and the Courts' use of Portuguese for legislation and judicial decisions with hardly any translation or socialisation of the laws and decisions that determine the rights and liabilities of citizens under the law is not consistent with basic democratic principles.

It causes serious problems for the rule of law and the maintenance of the civil peace because when people do not know what their legal rights and obligations are, they are much less likely to enjoy protection of those rights vis-a-vis the State and if they do not know their obligations, they are much less likely to obey them.

The publication of legislation and court decisions in Portuguese entrenches the political order that deploys those tactics to maintain dominance of the State by the existing elite and provides little opportunity for the community to participate in the law and policy making processes.

It is, to lawyers, and to the ordinary person, an absurd notion that a Parliament or a Government or the Courts would use what is in effect a foreign language to the present generation that grew up under the Indonesian occupation.

It would be like the Australian or United States or English legislatures publishing new laws in Japanese.

Further, how, for example, would a member of the East Timorese community be able to sit in the public galleries in that august chamber of the Parliament when in session and using Portuguese and understand what was going on? Not even all members of parliament know Portuguese - but they would at least would have the benefit of simultaneous translation.

During the Indonesian occupation, bahasa Indonesia was also deployed as a means of domination and exclusion by the Javanese imperialists who perpetrated decades of crimes against humanity and human rights abuses leaving hundreds of thousands of Timorese dead, maimed and or psychologically injured.

So, there are some aspects of the use of Portuguese not only in the Parliamentary sessions but in the laws it enacts as well as in government decree-laws and government decrees, judicial decisions, the Official Gazette in which certain decisions of the State organs as well as all those laws must be publisehd and so on, which raise some fundamental questions about the transparency of political and legal debate in the country, about the common citizens opportunity to participate on the political processes and about the fate of participatory democracy in this country.
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