Elementary school students of the Cia Cia tribe in Bau-bau City, Indonesia, look at the Korean language textbook provided to them by Hunminjeongeum Society, a private research institute founded in 2007. / Korea Times File
By Lee Tae-hoon
A tribe on a remote Indonesian island, called Bau-bau, has been in the spotlight over the past few months for being the first foreign ethnic group to officially adopt hangeul ― the Korean alphabet.
However, Indonesian Ambassador to Korea Nicholas T. Dammen and Professor Chun Tai-hyun, who first proposed the idea of adopting the Korean alphabet to the Bau-bau mayor in 2007, discount reports on Korea's export of hangeul.
They claim that the majority of the media failed to look closely into the hangeul propagation project without a proper understanding of Indonesian society. Professor Chun even suspects that the project may be driven by personal ambitions and commercial interests.
The Cia-Cia, a minority tribe in Indonesia with a population of 60,000, rose to instant fame here and abroad after its announcement last August that it would adopt the Korean alphabet as a means to write down its spoken language.
A large number of newspapers and TV networks rushed to cover the news, including CNN, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Reporters bombarded the nine-member Cia-Cia delegation with requests for interviews when they arrived here last month for a six-day tour at the invitation of Seoul City.
The visitors showed off their hangeul skills in front of the cameras and, in return, returned home with an array of gifts, including school supplies, toys, ginseng and a promise to have a three-story culture center in their town.
Seoul City signed a letter of intent (LOI) with Bau-bau, pledging to boost cultural exchanges with the Cia Cia and support its Korean language education programs.
Pai Chai University in Daejeon vowed to construct a Korean-language center in one of the colleges in Bau-bau and donate books.
Koreans were filled with pride for transplanting their phonetic script, which many of them believe is the world's most scientific and easy to learn alphabet, into another culture as they bestowed gifts with a lavish hand.
Ambassador Dammen told The Korea Times last Thursday that hangeul had yet to be officially adopted by the Cia Cia because Bau-bau Mayor Amirul Tamim had not taken due procedures necessary for a foreign alphabet to be recognized as an official writing system.
"How can a foreign language all of a sudden jump into the middle of a small island, geographically located in the heart of Indonesia, and suddenly be recognized as an official one?" he said.
Lee Ho-young, a linguistics professor of Seoul National University and author of Cia-Cia's hangeul textbook, said that Tamim had been coordinating the matter with the central government of Indonesia.
Lee said that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that the Hunminjeongeum Society signed with Bau-bau City last year was legally binding and thus hangeul has been the Cia Cia's official alphabet since then.
However, experts say an MOU does not create any enforceable rights as it is not legally binding.
Lee said Tamim is also expected to receive the government's approval next month, but an official of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, flatly denies the claim.
He told The Korea Times Monday that the mayor had yet to report last year's agreement to adopt hangeul and had thus far only reported the signing of the LOI with Seoul as far as he is aware of.
Ambassador Dammen said Seoul intended to sign an MOU, which is typically more detailed and specific than the LOI, with Bau-bau, but he stopped Tamim from singing it by warning him of possible legal consequences.
He noted that Tamim not only does not have the authority to declare hangeul as Cia Cia's official alphabet, but also has failed to contact the government before announcing the controversial plan.
Dammen pointed out that any agreement signed with foreign countries should be in accordance with Indonesian Law No. 24 enacted in 2000 on International Treaties, which stipulates that one has to consult with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs before making any international agreement.
Off to a Bad Start
Chun, a professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies where he specializes in Malay and Indonesian linguistics, is also wary of the pending legal issues.
The former vice president of the Hunminjeongeum Society said Tamim has yet to push the revision of the ordinance of the island, which has a population of 120,000.
"Legally speaking, it is difficult to say hangeul is the Cia Cia's official writing system," Chun said. "There is no such provision that states the Korean alphabet is Bau-bau's official writing system in any of the city's ordinance."
He also said Indonesia's Basic Law stipulates that Indonesian, which uses the Roman alphabet, is the official language, though it states that all local languages are cultural assets that should be preserved.
"The project got off to a bad start," he said.
Chun said Tamim signed the MOU with the Hunminjeongeum Society in defiance of the official stance of the ministries of foreign affairs, interior and education, as well as culture and tourism.
He added that the society's zeal to transplant hangeul without willingness to understand Indonesian society and culture is destined to encounter major stumbling blocks.
Chun said that Cia Cia's first and only hangeul textbook, which was used to teach some 40 elementary students last year, contains many flaws.
"Only one Indonesian, named Abidin, participated in the making of the textbook, which was completed in six months," Chun said, adding that Abidin is not quite fluent in Cia Cia's tribal language and speaks only basic Korean. "The textbook is a mix of the Cia Cia language and Indonesian, and failed to contain honorifics commonly used in the language."
Exaggerated Media Reports
Dammen claims that the news on the official adoption of hangeul has been mostly media hype based on groundless claims.
"There have been exaggerations in the media," he said.
The ambassador said the Cia-Cia people already write standard Indonesian, which uses the Roman alphabet and he does not see a benefit in forcing them to learn another writing system.
The Korean classes have been taught to senior elementary students who already use Roman characters as part of their daily lives.
Professor Chun also noted that the Cia Cia is not a backward tribe nor is it completely isolated from society or deprived of education.
"Buton, where the Cia Cia tribe lives, has a strong passion for education and culture compared to other Indonesian regions," Chun said.
Dammen noted that the media made the blunder of misleading the public.
The ambassador said two things were not true: "One is the claim that hangeul is more suitable for the tribe. Another is that hangeul is the only way to preserve their history and culture."
Korean media in early 2000 depicted the Lahu tribe in Thailand, which also already uses Roman characters, as having successfully transplanted the Korean alphabet to help them overcome illiteracy there.
However, it was untrue. It turned out a documentary team paid some tribal members to learn hangeul for the sake of a TV program.
Dammen said that if the Cia Cia adopts hangeul as an official written language, they will become strangers in the middle of 240 million people.
"The Cia Cia will not be able to effectively communicate with the rest of the people in the country, and will eventually have to develop their own schools, universities, books, their own software and may have to print their own money, which is against the national law since they are Indonesian citizens," he said. "People shouldn't use the language as a promotional tool."
The ambassador is concerned with what will happen to the Cia Cia when the current local authorities who are behind the project are no longer in the office.
Dammen said he has repeatedly warned the Hunminjeongeum Society "not to go too far."
The society is a private research institute founded in 2007 by a retired real-estate agent, Lee Ki-nam, who had failed to export hangeul to other tribes in China, Mongolia, Nepal and Thailand.
The 75-year-old attributes her past failures to a reliance on Korean Christian missionaries, whose primary focus was not on improving linguistic or literary skills of local people.
Ambassador Dammen suspects that exporting hangeul may lie in the interest of the people here, rather than the tribes.
"I wonder, if there is not an appropriate argument to support this project, that the central government might think otherwise and request an end to it," he said. "However, if the central government approves the mayor's proposal, then of course, the embassy in Seoul will go along."
He said it was better to let the Cia Cia use and learn hangeul without officially declaring it the official alphabet.
Dammen noted that Arab characters have been used by numerous tribes in Indonesia for centuries, but none of them has declared it as their official language.