East Timor in Context

By Cottrill, Ross | New Zealand International Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

East Timor in Context


Cottrill, Ross, New Zealand International Review


Ross Cottrill provides an Australian perspective on the East Timor problem.

Eastern Timor must appear as an anachronism to every country in the world except Portugal. We get nowhere by saying that outside pressure on Portugal is just another indication of the expansionist policy of one of our neighbours.

(E. G. Whitlam, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, 1963)(1)

There are ways, other than bellowing through a bull horn, to register our concerns on human rights, and in the case of East Timor we adopted sensible procedures and effective measures.

(W. G. Hayden, former Foreign Minister and Governor-General, 1996)(2)

Once more the Timor issue is at the centre of Australia's international preoccupations. As on previous occasions, this is hardly a propitious time to be engaging the attention of the international community. NATO is involved in a major war in Yugoslavia, and in our own region a disastrous financial collapse has inflicted damage, from which the most resilient economies among those affected are only now starting to recover. Indonesia, of which East Timor has uneasily formed a part for 25 years, is the least resilient. The problems foreseen years ago are still with us, and in some respects they are sharper. There is more at stake. More promises have been made, more lives lost; incidents investigated, explanations made and assurances given, often unavailingly. The dilemmas remain sharp, but there is greater urgency.

Whenever the questions of self-determination or independence arise, they throw into relief the condition of Timor under Portuguese rule. That rule goes back a long way, to the time of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca on the Malay Peninsula. The earliest Portuguese reference to Timor dates from 1514.(3) In the first two centuries Portuguese activity was essentially of a missionary kind, and it was not until the eighteenth century that a seat of colonial rule was established on the island of Timor itself, with a concern about the growth of Dutch influence in the area, including on the other end of the island of Timor. It was not until the middle of last century that the process of extending administrative activity into the inland areas was begun.(4) The Portuguese administered Timor lightly, and largely indirectly, through local headmen and had little impact on the population at large.

The economic potential of Timor was not such as to attract vigorous colonial exploitation. The population depended on destructive slash and burn agriculture, with maize as the principal crop. Coffee was the dominant commercial crop, and most retail and other commercial activity was dominated by Chinese interests.(5) By the 1970s there was some interest in oil exploration and tourist potential, but no major change to a long-established pattern which placed Timor rather low among Portugal's colonial priorities.

By 1974, Timor was one of the poorest countries in the Third World, and it was a colony of the poorest country in Western Europe. The situation unravelled quickly after a coup d'etat mounted by the Armed Forces Movement in Lisbon in April 1974. Before the coup there had been no organized nationalist movement in East Timor and no identifiable opposition to Portuguese rule. After the coup there was notionally the opportunity to develop an orderly process of de-colonisation. But no such process developed.

Three options

The reasons have been explored in various places and the allocation of responsibility has been taken into the wider debate over East Timor. One example of this relates to the development of Portuguese policy after the coup. The new Portuguese authorities in June 1974 spelt out three options for the future of East Timor: a continued association with the metropolitan power, independence, or integration with Indonesia. It can be argued that by even identifying integration with Indonesia as an option, the Portuguese were conceding to that country a right that it did not possess; and yet the Portuguese might equally have seen it as both a pragmatic possibility and a means of reversing the process of colonisation. …

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