During the age of European imperial expansion, which began at the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms were first off the mark.
While the Spanish headed west, with Columbus landing in the Americas, the Portuguese, attracted by the wealth of the fabled east, sailed around the continent of Africa and into the Indian Ocean, to south and South East Asia.
In 1498, Vasco de Gama reached India, and 12 years later Portugal acquired Goa, on India’s west coast. They also managed to conquer areas of what is now Indonesia, including Timor, where Portuguese merchants arrived in 1515. Macao, at the mouth of the Pearl (Zhu Jiang) River, in southern China, became a Portuguese trading post in 1557.
However, while they would lose most of their empire to stronger European powers such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, the Portuguese managed to retain little remnants, including Goa, Macao, and the eastern end of the island of Timor. (The Dutch had made the western part of Timor part of their Dutch East Indies empire.)
While British India gained its freedom in 1947 and Dutch-ruled Indonesia its independence in 1949, the Portuguese hung on to their small possessions.
By the mid-1950s, though, decolonization was in full swing in Africa and Asia, and these little colonies stuck out like sore thumbs. The Bandung Conference, a meeting of 25 recently independent Asian and African states that took place in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, had called for an end to colonialism, and Indonesia’s President Sukarno became one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement of newly sovereign countries.
However, in both Goa and East Timor, centuries of Portuguese rule had made the native populations almost entirely Portuguese-speaking Roman Catholics, and Lisbon stubbornly refused to give them up. Portugal itself remained a backward semi-fascist state.
Losing patience, India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent the Indian army into Goa (and Portugal’s two other Indian dependencies of Diu and Daman) in 1961 and expelled the Portuguese. No one took much notice or protested. In India, the action was seen as the liberation of historically Indian territory. (When Macao was returned to China in 1999, the same argument was made.)
Relations between India and Portugal only thawed in 1974, when, following a revolution that led to the end of authoritarianism in Lisbon, Goa was finally recognized as part of India. In 1987 Goa became a separate state in the Indian federation, which it remains to this day.
Although Goa was predominantly Catholic during the long centuries of Portuguese rule, many left after 1961, and today Goan Catholics form only 30 per cent of the state’s total population (the majority are now Hindu).
The 1974 Portuguese revolution also saw the final end to its empire, as the new democratic government in Lisbon granted its African colonies independence. In East Timor, however, things turned out differently. It had also declared its independence, in 1975, but was invaded by Indonesia and declared Indonesia’s 27th province the following year.
The regime in Jakarta claimed the same rights to East Timor as India had done with Goa – it was a matter of decolonization. Based on the premise that the Portuguese half of Timor, an island geographically situated in the center of the vast archipelago, was really part of its territory, Indonesia contended that the division of the island into two had been simply the legacy of European imperialism and therefore should be rectified.
The Indonesians considered it another stage in the emancipation of their country, which had begun with the war of national liberation against the Dutch. No doubt Indonesia thought the same political reconciliation that had taken place with India would also occur following the annexation of East Timor. But things did not work out that way.
The United Nations never recognized the annexation, nor did Portugal. And the East Timorese, who were 97 per cent Catholic, never reconciled themselves to being part of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Their long and bloody subjugation under Indonesian rule resulted in some 200,000 deaths from famine and violence during the occupation.
International pressure mounted on Indonesia to allow self-determination for the province. Wishing to avoid the impression that Indonesia ruled East Timor as a colony, Indonesian president B.J. Habibie agreed to a vote, offering a choice between special autonomy and independence.
The 1999 UN-sponsored referendum found 78.5 per cent of East Timorese opting for independence. Further Indonesian-sponsored violence ensued, resulting in the arrival of an Australian-organized peacekeeping force. Finally, in 2002, East Timor (Timor-Leste) became an independent country and a member of the United Nations.
The world had changed since the era that produced the Bandung Conference. In 1961, the ideologies that legitimized the acquisition of territory by force, if necessary, on the basis of decolonization and anti-imperialism had allowed India to incorporate Goa. But four decades later, these had been trumped by the concept of the right of a people to self-determination.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.