Problems and Security Concerns along the Oecusse Border
14 years after independence, Timor-Leste is still seeking a final agreement on its Oe-cusse border territories with Indonesia. Two remaining locations—Noel Besi (in Citrana) and Bijael Sunan (in Oben) have ongoing territorial negotiations between the two states. Demarcation of the border continues to move slowly, placing those Timorese living in communities at the border perilous state of security. Frequent outbreaks of conflict between border communities have left Timorese in Oecusse with strong concerns for their own safety.
Following the state visit of Indonesian President Joko Widodo in 2015, the two governments formalized an accelerated process for finalizing the remaining border conflicts. However, there has been no noticeable improvement in negotiation or settlement, and the ongoing tensions are creating a rising threat to stability in the region, as well as posing a larger national security threat to the nation. Fundasaun Mahein’s monitoring team in May of this year identified a number of issues critical to security and stability on the Oecusse borders:
1. Lack of Security in the Naktuka area
The border area of Naktuka has been disputed since independence. Naktuka is located in Bene Ufi village in the sub-region of Nitibe in Oecusse. Bene Ufi Village totals 589 households, and within that a little less than 100 households are within the disputed Naktuta area. Continued conflict in that particular area has left occupants feeling distinctly unsafe, and the two governments have even explicitly recognized this particular area to be in immediate need of border resolution, and, concurrently, conflict mitigation.
In December 2013, there was an incident in which a lia nain (cultural chief) of Oecusse was killed in the Naktuta area, suspiciously on the lands of a farm owned by an individual from the Oewein community and from Oepoli in Kupang. This particular killing raised fears for Timorese households in the Naktuta area. In 2014, Fundasaun Mahein held monitoring to track security progress made in Oe-cusse, and concluded that no improvements had been made in community sentiment—people living in the area still felt that they did not live in a peacetime setting, and cited particular alarm and trauma at the sight of constant full Indonesian military patrols in the area.
The two governments have indeed found some success through the border coordination team in resolving border demarcation disputes, but the Naktuta and Leolbatan areas remain potential areas for conflict and weak stability. FM monitoring further concluded that in January and February of this year the Indonesian military ran patrols through the area with heavy weaponry and vehicles, presumably as an intimidation tactic. In March, approximately 150 former Timorese refugees from 1999 who had resituated in Oepoli, Kupang, had illegally entered Naktuta and cleaned out the rice fields. Border Patrol Unit (UPF) sources in Citrana confirmed to FM that this illegal movement and transgression had received no acknowledgement nor response from the UPF.
The public’s concern is simple: why are Indonesian citizens illegally migrating into the Naktuta area, and why is the Indonesian military conducting regular show-of-force patrols through the area? Where is the UPF, and why is there no standing agreement between the UPF and the TNI that mandates UPF approval for any incursions by TNI patrols? The people of the Naktuta area are urging the government to accelerate their resolution of the border areas in order to minimize future tensions and conflicts in their communities.
2. Community hopes for “reconciliation”
Several years after a conflict between the communities of South Village in Oecusse and Suin-Sia and Baki-Tolas Villages in Tenggara Timur (NTT), there has still be no formal resolution of the area by the two governments. The conflict in 2013 resulted in three burned and razed houses in the community of Nelu, a neighborhood in South Village. Ongoing tensions from those burnings continue, and could easily flare up into further aggression and violence.
The communities in the Nehu neighborhood still exhibit fears about safety in the area, despite new levels of high security provided by UPF forces. Community fears have now turned from the threat of physical force and violence to other methods of conflict and threats. A given example was the water fountain in Hale used by the community—any sabotage there as an act against the community would severely impact the people’s access to clean water. An incident like this has already occurred, feeding local fears—a pipe leading to the Ba-OP fountain in the area was destroyed, cutting off part of the UPF post’s water supply.
In fear of similar acts being perpetrated in the future, should there be no immediate reconciliation reached, the communities have urged the governments to step in to negotiate local reconciliation processes to mitigate future tension and conflict. Social inequality within communities along the border poses a frequent risk of conflict and outbreaks of violence, and can ultimately affect the security of the larger border area.
3. Patrol progress and the Conditions of the UPF Along the Border
The Border Patrol Unit (UPF) has so far maintained relative control of the border territory in the Oecusse region. However, each UPF post on the border faces understaffing and a shortage of resources necessary to maintain a full presence along the border with Indonesia.
FM;s monitoring has concluded that these limitations have begun to pose a significant obstacle in security maintenance along the border. For instance, the Citrana post is not able to conduct regular patrols across its sizable territory due a lack of staff. At the moment, the post’s patrol only extends within a kilometer of the Noemna river, abandoning a large section of the territory extending from the river to the Oepoli area.
These conditions have allowed fairly easily border crossings by Indonesian communities across the border in the Naktuta area and back. There are already concrete examples of this issue—150 people crossed over in March, and the UPF had no units in the field to detect them. The communities observe these crossings and subsequently are forced to contact the UPF to keep them up to speed. The lack of fully functioning border security continues to pose a serious risk for local (and national) security.
In summary, FM recommends that:
1. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation actually accelerate its negotiations on the demarcation of the border lines in order to minimize conflict between communities in the border areas. The Ministry should also facilitate local reconciliation processes for the communities on both sides in order to settle grievances and tensions across borders.
2. The PNTL commander establish alternative posts along the border line of Oecusse, particularly in disputed areas that continue to present open holes on the border for illegal migration. The PNTL should also expand its support and provision of facilities and equipment to facilitate expanded and more effective patrols and police services in the border areas.