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East Timor Wednesday, 12 May, 1999, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
East Timor: The view from Portugal
East Timorese brave the rain in Lisbon for a May Day demonstration
East Timorese brave the rain in Lisbon for a May Day demonstration
By Lisbon Correspondent Alison Roberts

East Timor has resurfaced in the world headlines in recent months, as the political changes and economic crisis in Indonesia have pushed the world's fifth most populous country to move with unexpected swiftness towards granting the territory autonomy, or even independence.

But in Portugal, the former colonial power that is still recognised by the United Nations as the legal administrator of East Timor, there is nothing new about the territory being front-page news.

Indeed, it has for years been something of a national obsession - a cause célčbre.

For decades, Portugal has lobbied tirelessly in the UN, the European Union, and other international forums to persuade other governments to back their campaign against Indonesia's brutal occupation of East Timor.

Jubilation mixed with caution

So it was hardly surprising that, when the two countries' foreign ministers reached agreement earlier this year on a popular consultation that could lead to East Timor's gaining its independence, the first instinct of the Portuguese was to celebrate.

Antonio Guterres
Antonio Guterres: "Risks and uncertainties remain"
State President Jorge Sampaio and Prime Minister António Guterres have nevertheless cautioned against premature celebration. Still, they clearly found it hard to suppress their own excitement.

"We all know the risks and uncertainties that remain," Guterres has said. "But we shouldn't forget that, after 23 years of armed resistance in Timor and diplomatic action by Portugal, the principle of self-determination has finally been recognised.

"We must celebrate, but without forgetting that the most difficult part is still to come."

Lingering guilt

The Portuguese public's strong feelings about East Timor partly result from guilt.

It is not colonial guilt of the kind sometimes felt by liberals in more powerful former imperial powers such as Britain and France, but the guilt resulting from Portugal's undignified exit from Timor in 1975.

Indonesian forces invaded just as Portugal was poised to grant the territory independence.

Within months of Lisbon pulling its army out, more than 100,000 Timorese were killed by the Indonesian soldiers or died of disease or starvation. Tens of thousands of children were orphaned and many were permanently maimed.

In the quarter century since the invasion, several thousand Timorese have fled the territory and found their way to Portugal, where they have been given refuge and, often, an education.

It is from Lisbon that José 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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