Portuguese ties that bind

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 1999, 12:00am

The Post's new Macau correspondent begins a weekly column focusing on the enclave in this, its handover year.

This is a decisive year for the last two remnants of Portugal's erstwhile colonial empire that once spanned three continents.

While Macau will revert from Portuguese to Chinese administration at midnight on December 19, Indonesian President Bacharuddin Habibie has called on the people of East Timor to choose between autonomy or full independence by the end of the year.

Macau and East Timor have strong historical links. For several hundred years both were under the joint jurisdiction of the Portuguese-possessed Goa in India and East Timor was occasionally ruled from Macau during the 19th century.

Macau's judiciary used East Timor as a penal colony for long-term prisoners until the mid-1970s.

East Timor's Nobel Peace Prize co-laureates, Catholic Bishop Dom Ximenes Belo and pro-independence activist Jose Ramos-Horta, a former foreign minister of the ephemeral Democratic Republic of East Timor, have close personal ties with Macau.

According to international law, Macau and East Timor are territories under Portuguese administration. The United Nations, which has never recognised Jakarta's annexation of East Timor, still recognises Portugal as the territory's legitimate administering power.

Portuguese seafarers arrived in Timor about 1512. A governor sold the western part of the island to the Dutch in 1851, except for the enclave of Oecussi Ambeno, a swamp partly populated by fugitive black slaves.

Portugal abandoned East Timor amid strife among rival indigenous forces, the leftist Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an independent East Timor) and conservative Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), in 1975.

Fretilin unilaterally declared independence on November 28, 1975. Indonesia invaded East Timor 10 days later, apparently with the connivance of the United States which feared the emergence of a second Cuba.

Hundreds of East Timorese refugees have passed through Macau en route to exile in Portugal, Australia and elsewhere. The Macau Government has offered them generous assistance in finding temporary accommodation and employment.

Activists living in Macau say their occupied homeland can learn from the enclave's experience with training local people for civil service positions.

Nearly 97 per cent of Macau's 17,000 posts in the public administration, judiciary and security forces are filled with locals, by gradually replacing Portuguese expatriates in the upper echelons. The localisation process took 12 years.

One local East Timorese activist said East Timor should emulate Macau's generally smooth transition process leading from an old status to a new one. Sino-Portuguese understanding, co-operation and dialogue over Macau should serve as an example for future relations between Jakarta and Lisbon, said an East Timorese cleric living in Macau.

A future independent state of East Timor and the post-handover Macau Special Administrative Region are expected to maintain close emotional, cultural and business ties. Some local East Timorese have suggested Macau and Dili, capital of East Timor, be twinned to formalise their strong ties over four centuries (the Portuguese have ruled Macau since 1557).

After all, East Timor and Macau are part of Portugal's legacy in Asia, which also includes Goa, Damao and Diu in India and Malacca in Malaysia.

Unlike in Macau, Portuguese continues to be a widely-spoken language in East Timor where it has become a way of demonstrating the territory's cultural distinctiveness from Indonesia.

East Timor could also learn from Macau's experience with tourism and maybe even government-franchised gambling and betting businesses, including all the necessary precautions against organised crime.

East Timor was one of the world's least developed territories when it was invaded by Indonesia 24 years ago. In spite of some Indonesian efforts to develop it, the territory continues to be impoverished by two decades of an oppressive and exploitative regime run by the military.

Chinese business acumen from Macau, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region could help remedy the problem.