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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 Published at 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK


World: Asia-Pacific

Timor and the end of empire

An Australian peacekeeper meets East Timorese boys

By regional analyst Nick Nugent

The arrival of the multinational force in East Timor marks the beginning of the end of nearly 500 years of colonial rule.

East Timor
East Timor has been colonised for longer and by more powers than most former colonial possessions. Before Indonesia, the Portuguese, Dutch, English and Japanese all at different times ruled parts of the island.

Portugal held power the longest - more than 450 years - and made the greatest impact.

Now this underdeveloped 'half-island' hopes at last to assert its independence before the new millennium dawns.


[ image:  ]
Indonesia occupied the territory by force in 1975 after Portugal, preoccupied by a revolution at home, abdicated responsibility for its poorest overseas possession.

Indonesia saw itself as the natural inheritor of this orphan state.

However, a majority of its people have asserted their different traditions in voting to end Indonesian rule.

Just how serious a blow this is to the psyche of Indonesia, the world's fourth largest nation, has been demonstrated by the scorched earth policy tolerated, if not actually encouraged, by Indonesia's armed forces - the Tentara National Indonesia, or TNI.

Politicians in Jakarta are worried at the effect the vote could have on other independence-minded provinces.

Indonesia is likely to grant East Timor's independence formally in November.

Recognition by the community of nations and United Nations membership are expected to follow.

Since hardly any nations had recognised Indonesia's annexation of the territory, independence will also mark the formal end of Portuguese rule.

The United Nations lists East Timor as a Non-Self-Governing Territory under the administration of its former colonial power, Portugal.

Spice islands

Portuguese seafarers first settled on the island in 1520. Like the Dutch and the English who followed, they were lured to the east by the profits to be made transporting spices like cloves and nutmeg to sell in Europe.


[ image: Counting the votes in the UN-supervised referendum]
Counting the votes in the UN-supervised referendum
Sandalwood was the attraction in Timor. The adjacent spice islands of Ambon, Banda, Ternate and Tidore are dotted with Portuguese forts, attesting to the power Portugal once held in this part of the world.

However, the Dutch and the English proved stronger and by the start of the 20th century Portugal retained only the eastern end of Timor.

Twice it briefly lost possession: to the English in the early 19th century and once more to the Japanese during the second world war, a conflict which led to Australian soldiers being deployed on the island for the first time.

After Indonesia's annexation, East Timor's nationalist leaders settled their differences with Portugal, which then led the international campaign against Indonesian rule.

Portuguese empire dwindles

The August independence referendum was mainly a result of Portuguese lobbying at the United Nations.


[ image:  ]
Now Portugal is understood to have promised to underwrite the newly independent state economically for several years, though the cost of rebuilding the devastated nation may be more than the relatively small European power can afford on its own.

East Timor's independence is not a model of which the Portuguese can be proud.

Yet it is an interesting coincidence that the Portuguese empire will be formally wound up later this year when its only other remaining colony, Macao, is returned to China.

For the first time in nearly 500 years, Asia - apart from a few scraps of Indian Ocean territory - will pay no tribute to faraway European rulers.

Nowadays it is economic imperialism which matters more. Those nations keen to help East Timor recover from the state in which Indonesia has left it may well have an eye on the rich oil and gas fields of the Timor Sea, as indeed did Jakarta. Hydrocarbons are the new spices.

Portugal ruled East Timor for 20 times as long as Indonesia, hence its cultural influence runs much deeper.

But the two powers had one thing in common: both lost control of this outpost of empire whilst they were themselves undergoing a difficult transition from military to civilian rule.



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