Finding Its Voice, Portugal Stands Up for Its Former Colony

Like a lone voice in the wilderness, Portugal is championing the cause of self-determination for East Timor at a time when its Indonesian occupiers appear to be hardening their position.

High-level contacts made between the new Socialist government in Portugal and Indonesia since February had nurtured hopes that a solution could be found for the former Portuguese territory, which Indonesia invaded 20 years ago and then annexed.

But Western diplomatic sources say it appears that the impasse is as strong as ever, with no resolution in sight. "There is a wide gap to breach. The Indonesians are showing complete inflexibility. Due to domestic military pressure, the government doesn't want to seem like it's giving in," says a Western diplomat.

The issue of East Timor is the closest thing Portugal has to a national cause and is the only issue uniting all the political parties in parliament.

Portugal refers repeatedly to 1974, when it agreed with Indonesia to allow the East Timorese to decide their own fate in a referendum. The vote was never held, and Indonesian troops invaded the territory in December 1975. The following July, Indonesia annexed East Timor, and guerrilla resistance has simmered since.

It took a few years for Lisbon to become vocal about the annexation, which the United Nations never recognized. The previous Social Democratic government assumed the role of East Timor's main defender over the past few years, a stance continued by the new Socialist government.

Western diplomats say Lisbon's active interest in Timor enhances its faded diplomatic profile. Every little success, such as summoning support within the European Union on Timor, is claimed as a victory, which increases national pride.

International concern about human rights abuses by Indonesia in East Timor hit an all time high in November 1991, when scores were slain after Indonesian troops fired on hundreds of demonstrators in Dili, East Timor's capital. Between 50 and 200 people died.

Some diplomats say they are surprised by the level of attention Portugal still pays to the issue. "It is a lone campaign," one diplomat says.

But Portuguese officials say they have a moral and constitutional responsibility to defend the Timorese. This is especially so because when the invasion occurred Portugal was in no position to defend the Timorese because of its own political turmoil. "East Timor is connected to our history. So it's up to us to act like an attorney for the Timorese," a Portuguese government official says.

Hopes had been high in Lisbon that something might change when leaders of the two countries held their first meeting in more than 30 years on the sidelines of an Asian-Europe summit in Bangkok earlier this year.

Portugal's prime minister, Antonio Guterres, made a package of proposals to Indonesian President Suharto. These included releasing jailed rebel leader Xanana Gusmao. In return, Portugal said it would agree to both countries opening "interest sections" in each others' capitals.

The proposal only hardened the recalcitrance of Indonesia, which was angered by the suggestion that a precondition like Mr. Gusmao's release be linked to resuming limited diplomatic ties.

"The Indonesians don't want to be forced. They feel like Portugal packages everything in a way that doesn't give returns," a diplomat says.

When asked why Portugal has been so vocal in defending East Timor, Jose Ramos Horta, the chief of a Timorese exile group, says: "The Portuguese are very moral people who feel strongly about underdogs. Now the country is more confident to tackle the issue, having overcome its own instability." Mr. Horta was in Lisbon to launch a campaign to boycott Indonesian goods.

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