Helping in the hour of need

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am

A PORTUGUESE gendarmerie force was welcomed last Sunday by crowds in East Timor after arriving to help with international peacekeeping efforts.

The 127 Portuguese policemen are operating alongside about 2,000 peacekeepers from the Asia-Pacific region, including soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia who are attempting to quell the most serious civil strife since the country gained full independence four years ago.

Portugal, as the colonial power for almost 300 years, has maintained strong ties with Timor-Lest (as it is known in the nation's second official language, Portuguese). Moreover, as a result of their shared history, both countries have overwhelmingly Roman Catholic populations.

More recently, Portugal helped finance East Timor's 1999-2002 independence process. However, the recent troubles have created a refugee crisis of a scale that has demanded international intervention, one that Lisbon has been quick to respond to.

The present hostilities began when a dispute over ethnic favouritism within the East Timor army exploded into general lawlessness that has seen roaming gangs torching buildings, destroying property, and attacking each other as well as unarmed civilians.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates announced the deployment - 'a gesture of solidarity' - after his government took the decision on May 25, following an appeal from East Timor authorities and diplomatic contacts in the United Nations.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan personally called Mr Socrates to tell him that the UN fully backed Portugal's plans for participation in international efforts to restore law and order.

In addition to quelling rioting and unrest, the Portuguese National Republican Guard is training local security forces, a crucial role in this country where Portuguese is widely spoken. The Portuguese force was sent within the framework of a bilateral agreement and will work under Timorese command. An advance team left for the capital Dili on May 26.

Portugal's association with the tiny southeast Asian country began nearly 500 years ago when sea-faring Portuguese merchants started trading with the island of Timor in the early 16th century. The island became a Portuguese colony in 1702 with the arrival of the first governor from Lisbon.

Imperial rivalry with the Dutch in the region eventually resulted in an 1859 treaty in which Portugal ceded the western portion of the island. Japan occupied East Timor from 1942 to 1945 and ruled with appalling brutality, but Portuguese administration returned after Japan's defeat at the end of the second world war.

East Timor declared itself independent from Portugal on November 28, 1975, but Indonesian forces moved in nine days later. It was incorporated into its giant neighbour in July 1976 as the province of East Timor.

On August 30, 1999, in a UN-supervised referendum, a huge majority of East Timorese citizens voted for independence. Following a period of fierce fighting instigated by Indonesia loyalists, peacekeeping troops of the International Force for East Timor (whose numbers included Portuguese peacekeepers), arrived the following month and brought the violence to an end. On May 20, 2002 East Timor was internationally recognised as an independent state.

However, initial upbeat projections and expectations for the country's future have not been fulfilled.