Lisbon – Portugal and Indonesia will open interest sections in each other's capitals in January as part of a slow but sure fence-mending bid between states that became enemies two decades ago over East Timor.
The row goes back to 1975 when Indonesia invaded the territory a year after Portugal abandoned it to fractious independence movements.
After a year of heavy fighting, Jakarta unilaterally declared East Timor its 27th province in 1976 in a move never recognized by the United Nations – which still considers Portugal the administering power – and most countries.
The decision to open the interest sections was made in August. In Jakarta, the Portuguese mission will be in the Dutch embassy while in Lisbon the Indonesian section will be housed in the Thai embassy.
It is part of a quiet move towards rapprochement by the two capitals, mainly through UN-sponsored talks on autonomy for East Timor. The next round of negotiations is due to take place February 1 to 5 in New York.
Contacts have also included symbolic gestures. The Jakarta government last October offered the Lisbon zoo two Komodo dragons, a rare, large species of lizard native to the East Indies, after a visit to the Portuguese capital by the Indonesian minister for youth, Agung Laksono, to take part in an international conference.
The UN proposals call for the organization of free elections to form an autonomous government in the East Timor capital of Dili. The plan is based on Jakarta's proposal to offer wide-ranging autonomy for East Timor in all but defense, foreign affairs and finance.
Both sides agreed in August to set aside the issue of the territory's final status. Jakarta has rejected a referendum on self determination, saying this would lead to civil war on the island where rival groups are pushing either for integration with Indonesia or outright independence.
The Lisbon government and leaders of the National Council of the Timorese Resistance (CNRT) see the UN text as a plan towards the formation of a transition government straight through to the organization of a popular vote.
"This plan can only be valid if Indonesia accepts at the end of this period – from three to five years – the organization of an internationally monitored democratic consultation," said Jose Ramos-Horta, CNRT vice-president who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace prize with East Timor's Bishop Carlos Belo for their efforts to bring peace to East Timor.
UN special representative Jamsheed Marker, who arrived in Jakarta Tuesday on a week-long mission, said he believes the UN plan could be accepted by both sides, whatever the decision on the final status of the territory.
"The question of self-determination has for the moment been put aside ... We first must see how autonomy works," Marker was recently quoted as saying in the Diario de Noticias paper.
Marker is the first of a series of UN envoys set to visit East Timor to explain the local population. Sources in Jakarta said he was due there this weekend.
Bilateral contacts meanwhile have included a controversial visit by the mayor of Lisbon, Joao Soares, son of Portugal's former president Mario Soares, to Jakarta in mid-November, where he visited jailed East Timor rebel leader Xanana Gusmao.
Soares also met with Indonesian President B.J. Habibie to urge the release of Gusmao, who is serving a 20-year sentence on charges of plotting against the Indonesian state and illegal posession of firearms.
The tension over East Timor led to a boycott of Indonesian-made products in Portugal, which is still in place. But other areas of bilateral exchange appear to be easing up. In the media, for one, the Portuguese press agency LUSA has signed a cooperation accord with the Indonesian agency ANTARA to place reporters for the first time in each other's capital and share news.
The countdown for the handover of another Portuguese area in Asia, Macao – the enclave near Hong Kong scheduled for return to China December 20, 1999 after 442 years of Portuguese administration – has already begun.
Portugal, still considered by the United Nations as the administrator of East Timor, is said to be hoping that 1999 will also bring autonomy for East Timor and the retreat of Indonesian troops from the island.