F-FDTL’s Role In Border Security – Complexities And Challenges

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As Fundasaun Mahein has written previously, border security and control are essential for sovereign states to be able to respond effectively to a variety of threats to public wellbeing and national security. Since our independence, Timor-Leste has faced many challenges in effectively controlling our land and maritime border regions. These challenges involve financial and human resource limitations, political factors, and complex socio-cultural and economic conditions in border areas. A further difficulty is that the responsibility for border control has not yet been fully clarified, and the border itself has not yet been fully delineated. An ongoing debate relates to the deployment of F-FDTL to the land border to take over the responsibility for border control from PNTL. This blog summarises Fundasaun Mahein’s upcoming report on F-FDTL’s deployment to the land border and its implications for Timor-Leste’s border security.

As expressed in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (RDTL) Constitution and Laws, PNTL and F-FDTL have different roles – the former is responsible for internal security, while the latter is responsible for external defence. However, there are still some contradictions and lack of clarity regarding the precise role played by the two security institutions in border policing and control. For example, F-FDTL currently controls Timor-Leste’s maritime territory, while PNTL’s Border Police Unit (UPF) is deployed at the land border. However, UPF’s role at the border is not defined in any written governmental decision or Law, but simply based on decisions made during the UN transitional administration.

Recently, decision makers have discussed withdrawing UPF from the land border and replacing it with F-FDTL forces to respond to UPF’s inability to prevent illegal cross-border movement of people and goods. This decision followed the widely publicised incident of Timor-Leste citizens being deported from Indonesia when attending a martial arts event in Atambua. As FM wrote at the time, the concept of deploying F-FDTL to the border also relates to its core mission of guaranteeing territorial integrity and defending Timor-Leste’s population from external threats. Despite this mission being explicitly laid out in the RDTL Constitution and Laws, it has yet to be manifested in a permanent F-FDTL deployment at the border. PNTL’s mission is clearly limited by the RDTL Constitution to defending democratic legality and guaranteeing citizens’ internal security, which is repeated in PNTL’s Organic Law. However, the Organic Law also mentions PNTL’s role in border security, specifically supporting F-FDTL and the Migration Service to oversee the land and sea borders and control the movement of people and goods.

In addition to these legal ambiguities, several issues have dominated concerns around Timor-Leste’s border security. One major issue which has provoked public fear is the movement of illegal guns into the territory from West Timor (Indonesia). Such weapons have included both automatic weapons allegedly sold by ex-militia members living in West Timor, and, more commonly, air rifles used for hunting animals. While air rifles are generally used for hunting, there have been several incidents of people being shot with these guns. As recently as November 2021, several air rifles were found being transported illegally to Ermera from the border with Indonesia. The movement of these guns thus represents an ongoing risk to both national security and public safety.

Another key issue is that the border has not yet been fully delineated by the Timor-Leste and Indonesian governments. The uncertainty around border delineation raises both criminal and political questions, as it makes it difficult for authorities to control illegal activities while creating space for more powerful countries to violate the sovereign territory of their smaller neighbours with impunity. A recent case occurred in August 2021, where Indonesian soldiers and a police officer accompanied a group of twenty Indonesian citizens illegally crossing into Timor-Leste in relation to a dispute over livestock, which led to the shooting of a Timorese citizen by the Indonesian security forces. Over the years, there have been numerous such instances of Indonesian citizens relying on the security forces to illegally resolve cross-border disputes.

Moreover, between 2010 and 2013, there were several incidents of TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia ­-Indonesian military) soldiers damaging and destroying public buildings within Timor-Leste. Some of Timor-Leste’s military leaders have argued that such incidents have been partly caused by the lack of coordination and mutual respect between TNI and PNTL, which itself is related to the military’s hierarchical and militaristic culture which makes it difficult to collaborate with civilian entities such as the police.

An additional challenge is the socio-economic and cultural dependency which exists in the border region. Many families have members living on both sides of the border, with regular cultural ceremonies and events requiring frequent cross-border movement. Displacement during periods of conflict have also led to many families being spread across different sides of the border. In addition, the lack of development programs facilitated by the central governments has also meant that people living in these neglected areas depend on cross-border trade for basic survival.

In fact, these communities have lived this way for generations, and only recently has their way of life become a target of security interventions. During the Portuguese colonial era, policing of the border was non-existent, and even after Indonesia gained independence the border zone remained largely untouched by the central administration or security forces. Thus, the policing of the border is a relatively recent phenomenon, mostly occurring after Timor-Leste’s independence. However, it is still weakly and sporadically policed, and, as mentioned above, the border is still not fully delineated. The border thus remains extremely porous until today, despite certain efforts to police it. At the same time, security forces from both countries have been known to facilitate illegal movement of people of goods. This contradictory situation has led to increased conflict between the modern state apparatus and the traditional way of life of local communities.

The difficult economic situation and ongoing social links have also driven increased illegal cross-border economic and socio-cultural activities, particularly smuggling of goods and illegal crossing by members of martial arts groups. While it is difficult to fully separate these activities from legitimate community activities which have continued for generations, they raise specific challenges for policing due to their potential risks to both community and individual safety and national security. In particular, human and drugs smuggling are harmful for the wellbeing of individuals involved and due to their corrupting influence on security actors and society in general.

Martial arts activities in Timor-Leste also represent a long-term security concern which FM and many others have written about extensively, and the lack of border controls is likely contributing to the growth of martial arts activity in Timor-Leste. However, it is also important to note that while there have been major recent incidents related to martial arts groups at the border, these incidents have not been frequent and thus do not justify a heavy militarised response. It is therefore important that Timor-Leste be careful in its response to avoid victimising local communities or provoking tensions with Indonesia.

A final challenge relates to the capacity limitations faced by Timor-Leste’s border security institutions, including limited human resources and personnel, communications, transportation and surveillance technologies, including radio towers and other equipment. These difficulties are systemic and long-term, and require a coordinated response from the leaders of Timor-Leste’s Government and security institutions, with support from international partners. Without developing a coordinated and systematic plan to address these capacity limitations, it will be impossible to resolve the complex challenges we face in our border regions.

FM wrote previously that we agree in principle with deploying F-FDTL to be involved in border security activities, given its role according to the RDTL Constitution and the difficulties faced by PNTL in responding to security problems at the border. However, it is important for PNTL to continue its involvement at the border, both to continue improving PNTL’s capacity and to avoid excessively militarised responses which can provoke conflict and abuses with communities and Indonesian forces.

Fundasaun Mahein offers the following suggestions as potential solutions to the complex challenges described above:

  • Develop a comprehensive National Security Policy which incorporates thorough and realistic plans for enhancing border security capacity.
  • Increase support for cooperation between F-FDTL and PNTL on border security issues, while improving budget allocations for developing PNTL’s capacity at the borders. In particular, UPF and UPM require specific support to develop their capacities in the areas of human resources, communications and transportation, as well as surveillance technologies and techniques. This can improve security forces’ ability to detect and control illegal activities which pose a threat to national security, especially smuggling of people and drugs, and martial arts.
  • While the growth of martial arts activities in Timor-Leste remains a concern, the recent incident involving the deportation from Atambua of many Timorese martial arts members does not by itself justify a heavy militarised response. There have been very few such incidents during Timor-Leste’s history and such a response would likely lead to human rights abuses and potential escalation of tensions with the Indonesian security forces. FM therefore urges the Government, F-FDTL and PNTL to proceed with caution to avoid unnecessary militarisation and aggression in their response.
  • Work towards signing a Memorandum of Understanding to improve coordination between TNI and F-FDTL, and the border units of each country’s police forces. This can facilitate mutual respect, sharing of information and prevent tensions from escalating between the two countries’ security forces, thereby strengthening the security of both countries while preventing criminality and human rights abuses.
  • Work with the Indonesian Government to create a special regime for citizens living on the border to facilitate legal movement and avoid criminalisation of communities. This can include licences for movement for socio-cultural and economic purposes, as well as creating a special tax and customs regime to formalise the border economy, which can enable local communities to engage in cross-border trade without fear of harassment from state officials.

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