Timor Leste, also known as "East Timor", was a Portuguese colony for four centuries, and its historical and particularly religious heritage were central to its retaining its identity after Indonesian forces occupied the territory in 1975. It secured full independence in 2002, but links with Portugal remain important -- links which are as much strategic as sentimental.
Searching for identity: Timor Leste has been looking to the Lusophone world
In the 90s, Portuguese rock star Luis Represas performed his song ‘Aí Timor’ countless times to raise awareness about the plight of the Timorese under Indonesian occupation. It helped spur Portugal’s government to lobby in global forums for Timor’s right to self-determination. Even before independence in May 2002, Timorese leaders signalled that Portuguese would be one of two official languages, along with Tetum, the most widespread local tongue -- although barely 5% of the population spoke Portuguese, while more than 40% spoke Indonesian.
This week, Timor Leste’s foreign minister, Zacarias da Costa, was in Lisbon for the inauguration of a new embassy, and to see Timor’s ambassador to the CPLP, the community of Portuguese-speaking countries, take up his post. Timor is only the third country to appoint a permanent representative to an organisation that is still in its formative phase. For such a poor country to maintain two separate diplomatic missions in Lisbon is a major effort, but minister da Costa says it’s the right one:
"I think it’s important as a political signal to CPLP countries, also to show our commitment to this organisation. Of course Timor Leste feels very much part of Lusophone family and we certainly like to participate fully."
Da Costa is an example of the ties that bind the Timorese elite to Portugal; he partly grew up in Lisbon. Portugal, too, is committed to maintaining the special relationship.
João Cravinho, its secretary of state for development, recently returned from a visit to Timor to oversee the launch of new aid projects. Portugal is helping with institution-building in areas such as justice, but the biggest stress is on education: staff and materials for the teaching of Portuguese.
But Cravinho stresses that Portugal’s investment in the language is in response to local demand. What’s good for Portugal, it seems, is good for Timor.
José Filipe Pinto, a professor at Lisbon’s Universide Lusófona who this week launched a book on relations between Portuguese-speaking communities, says Timor Leste’s choice of Portuguese as an official language, and its efforts to build relations with countries where it is spoken, make strategic sense:
"The neighbouring countries weren’t friends of Timor in the past", he argues. "And language can play an important work in this affirmation, in this statement of Timor as an independent country."
Helping the police
With Brazil also sending teachers to Timor, the language drive is working. UN figures for last year show the proportion of people who say they speak Portuguese trebling to 15% -- rising to 25% in towns. Meanwhile, the security situation has improved greatly since a UN report last summer described it as verging on chaos and slammed politicians for letting personal disputes undermine institutions. Foreign Minister da Costa says that’s all in the past: "We will not commit the same mistakes that we have done in the past, and we all are determined to succeed!"
The Timorese can be sure Portugal will support it in that enterprise. Last week, a Portuguese was appointed as the new police commissioner for the UN mission in Timor. He’ll command Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and Philippines nationals, as well as 200 Portuguese policemen and -women.