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Wednesday, August 25, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK

Portugal's obsession with Timor

Portugal has lobbied for independence for more than two decades

By Alison Roberts in Lisbon

The referendum in East Timor is being closely watched in the former colonial power, Portugal.

Hardly a day goes by without East Timor making front-page headlines or the lead story on the television news.

It's one international story guaranteed to attract interest, having been a cause celebre here for years.

For decades Portuguese diplomats lobbied tirelessly in the UN, the European Union and elsewhere to persuade others to back their campaign against the Indonesian presence in East Timor.

When the government in Jakarta this year recognised the principle of self-determination, it generated huge excitement in Portugal.


There is undoubtedly a measure of guilt in the feelings of the Portuguese about East Timor.

It is not just because the Timorese are predominantly Catholic and many speak Portuguese, but because of the way Portugal abandoned the territory in 1975.

Indonesian forces invaded just as Lisbon was poised to grant the territory independence. The colonial power wanted to focus on its own turbulent internal affairs after the 1974 coup that overthrew the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal.

Within months of Portugal pulling out, tens of thousands of Timorese were killed by Indonesian soldiers or died of disease or starvation.

Since then 2,000 East Timorese have found their way to Portugal, where they have been given refuge and, often, an education.

It is from Lisbon that Josť Ramos Horta for years has co-ordinated the campaign for East Timor's independence, becoming a national figure in Portugal in the process.

When he and the bishop of Dili, Dom Ximenes Belo, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, the whole of Portugal celebrated.

East Timor is such a universally popular cause in Portugal that an improbable selection of public figures have sought to associate themselves with it.

Among them is Dom Duarte, the man who would be king if Portugal were to become a monarchy again, and who regularly pronounces on events in East Timor - usually to chide the Portuguese government for inaction.

Practical help

The real test of Portugal's commitment to its former colony, however, may be still to come. There have been complaints from Timorese resistance leaders that Portugal is not providing all the practical help it could.

Ana Gomes, the diplomat who heads Portugal's recently established special interests section at the Netherlands embassy in Jakarta, has sought to answer those criticisms.

After her first visit to East Timor, in March this year, she announced that she was recommending to the government in Lisbon that it make an immediate start to emergency aid programmes.

It is clear from her statement and those by other Portuguese diplomats that the EU's second-poorest country is keen to involve its European allies in such ventures. For her part, Gomes is optimistic: "I think there will be a lot of help for Timor."

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US warns Indonesian army

The lost world of the Timor rebels

Who makes up the Timor force?

Shadowy militias of East Timor

Analysis: New dawn for Timor?

Analysis: Gusmao's key role

Bishop Belo: Timor's spiritual leader

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East Timor on the Web

East Timor: The view from Portugal

Eyewitness: The trials of East Timor

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Analysis: Jakarta's long-term concerns