When Indonesian authorities captured and deported several Timorese citizens who had crossed illegally into Indonesia to attend martial arts graduation events in Atambua, this became a major news event in Timor-Leste. The Minister of Defence Filomeno Paixão responded to the situation by stating that “since PTNL does not have the capacity to control the border, we must deploy F-FDTL to the border”. Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak declared further that he had already consulted with the President of the Republic to deploy F-FDTL to the border, at the latest by the end of his mandate in 2022.
Various groups have expressed opinions for and against the withdrawal of PNTL’s Border Patrol Unit (UPF-PNTL), some supporting continued UPF-PNTL presence at the border, and others supporting replacing this unit with F-FDTL soldiers. Some have pointed to the different missions of the security institutions, noting that F-FDTL is responsible for national defence while PNTL is responsible for internal security. They argue further that the deployment of UPF-PNTL at the border was not based on any written decision or law but on the political decision of certain leaders.
By contrast, F-FDTL’s deployment to the border relates directly to its responsibilities set out in the Constitution and Laws, namely to guarantee national independence, freedom and territorial integrity, and to protect the population from external aggression or threats. The question of border management thus cannot only be understood in relation to the application of laws and preventing illegal movement, but also relates to security risks as well as economic and socio-cultural issues.
The challenges faced by security forces such as limited infrastructure and logistics capability also continues to create space for illegal economic activity around the border. In addition, illegal crossings do not only occur across land borders but also via sea. The Maritime Police Unit (UPM-PNTL) faces similar problems as UPF.
Given these problems and the security risks around the border, Fundasaun Mahein agrees that F-FDTL can be deployed to the border to carry out its national defence responsibilities. However, it is also important to maintain PNTL’s presence in border areas, as well as other institutions which take part in the National Security System of Timor-Leste under the Integrated National Security System (SISN), including Migration Service, Customs Authority, Quarantine and others which monitor people, goods and vehicles which pass through the border. Integrated action from the SISN components will ensure that security risks to citizens and the State are managed effectively.
Finally, the challenges faced by UPF-PNTL in terms of efficacy, infrastructure and logistics should serve as a lesson which can guide the deployment of F-FDTL to the border. Fundasaun Mahein therefore asks the Government and state security institutions to adequately prepare for such challenges before the deployment to ensure its effectiveness.