Managing Tensions on the Timor-Leste/Indonesia Border
Asia Briefing N°50
4 May 2006
The legacy of “losing” Timor-Leste (East Timor) continues to haunt Indonesia, affecting attitudes toward Aceh and Papua, heightening suspicions about foreign intervention, complicating relations with Australia and perpetuating fears for territorial integrity. Despite this legacy, the shared land border has been mostly peaceful: the policy focus there should be as much on establishing the infrastructure for legal trade as on improving security.
Along the border of Timor-Leste and Indonesian West Timor, the main impact of that legacy is a fear that each new spat between neighbours and each new sign of organising by ex-militias – and in particular by the former militia leader Eurico Guterres – heralds a new round of violence. Although Timor-Leste has other significant security problems – most recently demonstrated by the 28-29 April rioting in Dili – that particular fear is largely unfounded.
Indonesia and Timor-Leste have mostly managed to establish good bilateral relations. The one issue that has consistently provoked a nationalist uproar in Indonesia is accountability for past human rights violations. The outrage in Jakarta was immediate when President Xanana Gusmão submitted the 2,500-page report of the Timor-Leste Commission on Truth, Reconciliation, and Reception (CAVR) to the UN Secretary-General. It was also short-lived, as more pressing domestic issues arose, and Gusmão and other Timor-Leste officials emphatically reiterated their determination to look to the future. Both governments are trying to bury the issue through a Commission on Truth and Friendship, which appears aimed more at finding a mechanism for amnesties rather than justice.
Sporadic incidents of violence do occur on the border but they are rarer than one might expect. The day-to-day problems are illegal crossings and smuggling. Delineation and demarcation of the final disputed border sections remains a sensitive but thus far manageable issue. The militias that once worked with the Indonesian military to try to crush the independence movement are largely a spent force, causing more headaches for local government in West Timor – mostly regarding compensation claims, resettlement issues and criminality – than for Timor-Leste. Destabilisation is far more likely to come from political forces inside the ex-province than outside.
The rioting in Dili on 28 April and in the early hours of 29 April helps to put the border incidents in perspective. It followed several days of protests by 591 soldiers sacked from the army and their supporters and left at least four dead, according to Timor-Leste Police Chief Paulo de Fatima Martins. Thousands of others reportedly sought temporary refuge at sites around the city or returned to their home areas in Timor-Leste. Some of the violent incidents on the border have been serious, but the numbers killed and temporarily displaced in the Dili riots exceed the same figures for all border incidents in 2005 and 2006 combined.
One issue that really could cause a crisis in the long term may be Oecusse, the enclave surrounded on three sides by West Timor and separated by 60 kilometres from the rest of Timor-Leste. Isolated, neglected, and faced with higher prices for basic goods than villagers across the border, its people may eventually conclude that independence has brought them nothing but hardship.
The two countries should consider:
instituting a soft-border regime as the easiest and best short-term step to reduce tensions and provide legal avenues for border trade;
investing in road works near the border to open access to better transportation for villagers and improve the reach of overstretched security forces;
deploying more police on the border;
improving security cooperation to manage border incidents better as they arise;
working with donors on livelihood and income-generating projects on both sides of the border;
ensuring that any decision to grant amnesty to perpetrators of serious crimes related to the 1999 violence is based on a full public hearing of individual cases; and
devising a lasting solution for ex-refugees.
Jakarta/Brussels, 4 May 2006
Martins told the press two people were killed and 36 wounded in the rioting on 28 April, while a further two people were killed and 43 injured in the early hours of 29 April in sporadic clashes between rioters and security forces. “45 Anggota Petisioner Diamankan PNTL”, Suara Timor Lorosae, 2 May 2006. Some media reports stated five people were killed, but did not cite a source.