Meshes the empire weaves

João Paulo Monteiro jpmonteiro at
Tue Sep 21 16:04:39 MDT 1999

Carlos Eduardo Rebello wrote:

>  That was not inevitable to happen, even after the Indonesian unilateral
> annexation. It must be remembered that (and João certainly remembers
> this) that the Portuguese enclaves in India - Goa, Damão and Diu - where
> taken by storm from the Salazarist regime in 1961 by the Indian army,
> and that nowadays thre is no sign of a Goese national liberation
> movement, the reason being , AFAIK, that the Indian ruling class didn't
> indulge in the kind of killing sprees that the Indonesian bourgeoisie as
> a whole (and the military caste and the Suharto clan in particular) did
> in East Timor. It must be remembered that the Indonesian national
> consciousness being a phenomemnon fostered only by the fact that the
> myriad of ethnicties and national groups now belonging to Indonesian had
> shared the common fate of Dutch rule, that any intended Indonesian
> absorbtion of the Timorese - that had had to suffer Portuguese rule
> since the XVIth. century, when Portugal received a trading post there
> from Spain in exchenge from the former trading post in the Moluccas -
> would be a long and slow business; something to which the Indonesian
> government seems to have devoted very little thought to -if any...

I was born in Mozambique in 1961. My parents were portuguese elementary
school teachers who migrated there in order to earn the means to raise a
family. When I was 6, I remember singing the national anthem in formation
before classes, wearing the uniform of the "Mocidade Portuguesa" (Portuguese
Youth). The buckle had an mysterious S which, so common wisdom stated, stood
for Salazar.

Back then, children were taught all the components of the glorious
portuguese empire. Among them, there were some tiny spots on the map that,
unbeknownst to me, had already been lost. Goa, Damão e Diu (the so called
State of India) and the fort of S. Baptista de Ajudá. The later was nothing
but an old warehouse for slave trade, with 2 hectares, on the coast of
Benin. Portuguese sovereignty being contested, the resident Antonio Saraiva
just burned it to the ground and left in 1961.

The State of India (Goa, Damão e Diu, three separated territories on the
western coast of India) was much more complicated. It had more than a
million inhabitants and possessed mythical significance for the
colonialists. Goa was conquered in 1510 and had been the capital of the
portuguese vice-kingdom of the Orient. Its diocese included all catholic
churches from the cape of Good Hope to China and Japan. India has,
naturally, claimed the territories in 1950, six months after independence.
Salazar refused any negotiations. My father actually served there, in the
late 50's. At that time, there were several waves of gandhist peaceful
invaders (satyagrahis). Then Nehru got tired of it and ordered an armed
invasion with overwhelming force, in December 1961. India invaded with
40.000 men, with air support and another 40.000 ready to back them. The
portuguese were 3.000. Salazar gave strict orders to resist to the last man.
But the portuguese commander, General Vassalo e Silva, ordered a retreat and
surrendered after two days, for which he was later punished. In Lisboa, the
Foreign Ministry declared officially that the news of surrender were "false"
and the national broadcaster invented stories of portuguese resistance for
days on. The loss of the State of India was a major trauma for the fascists
and contributed decisively for shaping the military doctrine and the
diplomatic strategy followed in the african wars.

On the XV and XVI centuries, Portugal has made a fair amount of sailing and
gun-boat diplomacy, for which it can be considered a worthy pioneer of
"globalization". But the nation never had the men or the resources required
to make conquest and colonization in profundity. The portuguese empire
consisted of little spots, typically fortified towns with an harbor, all
along the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. The only real colony was Brazil.
Angola and Mozambique were only consolidated with expeditions and
occupations of the hinterland in the late XIX century.

As of April 1974 (when decolonization became an imperative) there was Cape
Verde, Guinea-Bissau, S. Tomé e Principe, Angola, Mozambique, East-Timor and
Macau. Independence was granted to all african possessions. Macau will be
dully returned to the P.R. China later this year, when the treaty signed
with the celestial empire expires. Anyway, since the constitution of 1976,
Macau is no longer considered portuguese but only a chinese territory
temporarily under portuguese administration.

The question was: how to decolonize East-Timor? Granting it independence
within the borders of the former colony? Or integrating it in a larger
adjacent nation? As we know, the first way is the african way. In Asia, the
pattern has been different. Decolonization the african way is, in fact, an
admission that the authoctonal proto-national structures were too weak and
incipient to serve as base for viable and modern nation-states. This may irk
some multi-culturalists, but the historical fact remains.

The analogy with the State of India is tempting and many people have
concluded that the best way for East-Timor was integration in Indonesia.
These included Mario Soares, the most prominent leader of the "democratic"
(non-communist) opposition, in his book "Portugal Amordaçado" (1974).
However, it is a superficial analogy. The question doesn't have to do solely
with indonesian brutality and the detestable character of its present regime
(though these factors have had a decisive influence).

Indonesia has never claimed East-Timor from the portuguese colonialists. On
the contrary, in spite of its responsibilities on the Third World movement,
it has shown a consistent willingness to accommodate indefinitely with
portuguese rule in East-Timor. It would function as a very convenient
cushion. The only obsessive concern of the indonesian dictatorship was
avoiding self-determination by the east-timorese, particularly in radical
and socialist garb.

In 1959, there was an anti-colonial uprising in East-Timor. The portuguese
army responded by burning villages, massacring populations and patrolling
the streets (this, and other episodes, are now very conveniently forgotten).
Indonesia didn't budge. But in April 1972, the indonesian press was full of
rumors of an "anti-colonial coup" in East-Timor allegedly financed by the
soviet ambassador to Jakarta. The fascist portuguese government has had to
give the Indonesians its most firm assurances that everything was under
control. Nevertheless, a visit of inspection was arranged for the indonesian
foreign minister Adam Malik to watch for himself. He returned reassured.

Unlike India as regards Goa, the indonesian ruling class never considered
the east-timorese to be "their own kind". The indonesian state has
considered (and still does) East-Timor as a legitimate strategic interest
and a national security concern. Their approach was not one of national
liberation but, much to the contrary, of "sphere of influence" and "vital

All the organized political forces in the State of India in 1961, from the
communists to the catholics, were for integration. Not so in East-Timor,
where the pro-indonesian party APODETI was an insignificant puppet
organization planted there by indonesian agents. When the portuguese army
retreated in 1975, the neo-colonialist UDT staged a coup. It was defeated,
in a bloody civil war, by the radical nationalist movement FRETILIN who
proclaimed the Democratic Republic of East-Timor. The local UDTist
bourgeoisie then asked for indonesian help.

East-timorese nationalism would probably never have existed without
portuguese colonial domination. But the east-timorese are not malaysians and
have no memory or sense of belonging to any community of peoples on the
indonesian archipelago, which of course never existed. In fact, Indonesia is
as much a product of (dutch) colonialism as East-Timor. The african pattern
prevails here. This may be hard to swallow by indonesian pride, but you
cannot cheat history or send the army to undo it. Particularly in these
"humanitarian" times.

As Luis de Camões would put it, these are the meshes empire has weaven. For
the disgrace of the timorese people (East and West) I would add.

João Paulo Monteiro

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