Thursday, May 20, 2010

INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP - NEW REPORT Timor-Leste: Oecusse and the Indonesian Border

Dili/Brussels, 20 May 2010: The security threat at Indonesia and Timor-Leste’s shared border has decreased sharply since the latter’s 2002 independence, but failure to finalise agreement on the border and normalise cross-border traffic could allow limited but long-standing local disputes to escalate.

Timor-Leste: Oecusse and the Indonesian Border,* the latest policy briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the relationship between the two countries, which have done much to normalise relations and to leave their violent past behind. Yet, Crisis Group also notes that growing goodwill between the capitals is not yet matched by full cooperation on the border. The costs are greatest in Oecusse, Timor-Leste’s isolated enclave of 67,000 inhabitants inside Indonesian West Timor. The two countries have so far failed to agree on two segments of its border, and there is a risk that this unfinished business could threaten fresh conflict.

“The governments must work with renewed urgency to resolve the remaining disputed segments”, says Cillian Nolan, Crisis Group Analyst. “At the same time, they need to make greater efforts to promote local arrangements for cross-border activities. Otherwise, local disputes will fester and could escalate. The lack of a cheap and legal way for trade and cultural exchange promotes crime and corruption”.

Beyond security threats, there are border management challenges over the movement of people and goods. Though the enclave has been politically distinct for several hundred years, links remain strong between families divided by the border. Isolated from the rest of Timor-Leste, residents depend on cheap goods from Indonesia. Informal arrangements have served to facilitate these relations in the absence of a sustainable system that would promote rather than criminalise local traffic. But these are often put on hold when border tensions rise, increasing difficulties in Oecusse.

As Indonesia and Timor-Leste work on being good neighbours, they should focus on concrete actions that improve life for the people and lessen the risk of conflict on both sides. Final border demarcation would be a key step, so would formalising arrangements for increased communication and problem-solving between local officials and security forces.

The sides should move quickly to implement an agreed border-pass system and border markets to promote commercial and social exchange, which would immediately benefit both. Steps for civilian coordination of border matters should continue, with priority on local arrangements to manage resource conflicts. Maintaining good ties should not be left to casual encounters at border posts by frequently rotated security forces. Peaceful border management requires cultivating better contacts between civilian officials and elected governments.

“Boosting normal ties for Oecusse depends more on bureaucrats and politicians than soldiers and police”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “A less militarised soft border may be unlikely in the near term, but it should remain on the agenda as a long-term goal that both sides should actively work toward”.

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