Recently, the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) apprehended a fishing boat belonging to the company Hong Long Fisheries with large quantities of dead sharks on board. To access the illegal fishermen, the PNTL used a boat belonging to the environmentalist activist group Sea Shepherd. While this incident represents a triumph for Timor-Leste’s sovereignty and resource conservation, it also highlights the seriousness of the country’s maritime security threats and the pressing need for the PNTL to develop its capacity to confront them.
Because sharks are protected by Timorese law, the actions of Hong Long Fisheries (HLF) represent a blatant violation of Timorese law. This behavior reveals the disregard of many fishing operators for Timor-Leste’s sovereignty. With little or no ability to patrol the ocean, the PNTL wields no deterrent against illegal fishing practices. This enables fishing operators to pillage Timor-Leste’s resources with impunity, in addition to allowing licensed operators to violate the regulations around fishing practices.
In order to apprehend the HLF fishermen, the PNTL relied upon a boat owned by the activist group Sea Shepherd. This demonstrates that the PNTL lacks even the most basic capacity to perform its maritime security duties. Previous attempts to develop these capacities using Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean boats have ended in failure, mostly because the boats in question were designed for river usage and therefore unsafe for patrolling the open ocean around Timor-Leste.
Australia recently offered Timor-Leste the chance to participate in its Pacific Patrol Boat Program, which would give the country two seaworthy patrol boats. As part of this program, Australia pays for the boats’ construction and maintenance as well as the training of the crews, effectively allowing Timor-Leste to transform its maritime policing capacity free of charge. While many people in Timor-Leste have understandably expressed reservations about the program due to Australia’s complicated relationship with Timor-Leste, FM recommends that the Timorese government nonetheless accept the program due to its considerable advantages.
In addition to accepting the Pacific Patrol Boat program, the incoming government should prioritize the development of a maritime security strategy. Timor-Leste’s vulnerable territorial waters represent an urgent problem. The Timorese government must invest in maritime security to prevent further violations of Timor-Leste’s sovereignty.