Insights and Analysis

From Timor-Leste: “Independence Gave Me a Headache!”

January 16, 2008

By V. Bruce J. Tolentino

Senhor Arnaldo Sombico, the Elder from the enclave district of Oecussi, smiled ruefully as he spoke of the unexpected impact of Timor-Leste’s independence from Indonesia. “This independence gave me a headache!”

At independence in 2002, the domestic boundary of Oecussi District was transformed into an international border, part of the demarcation between Indonesia and the world’s youngest nation of Timor-Leste. The creation of the international border meant that crossing had to be authorized by the sovereign laws of two separate countries — and the whole panoply of passports, visas, customs, and immigration authorities and related fees and costs all came into play. The border separated members of families and set up barriers between people sharing a common history, culture, and economic endowments.

“Since independence I have had to be very vigilant with my cows, since they would often wander across the border,” added Senhor Batista da Cunja, the Village Chief. His complaint was echoed by Senhor Jose Seco, another village official from Oecussi.

The political decision to choose independence has brought particularly challenging problems for the people of Oecussi, since it is a single small district separated by about a hundred miles of Indonesian territory ” the Western half of Timor Island — from the rest of Timor-Leste.

Senora Juliana Abi, the women’s representative said, “We only ask that we can go to the closest market ” Kefamananu – on the Indonesia side of the border. The markets on the Oecussi side are farther from the border and more difficult and expensive to go to.”

Soon after Timor-Leste was recognized as an independent nation, The Asia Foundation worked with communities on both sides of the border to rebuild trust and confidence and enable trade and exchange. Discussions among officials, community representatives, and traders have been organized, both at the local level in the border areas as well as the national level in Dili.

My recent visit to Timor-Leste coincided with the arrival in Dili of a delegation of local-level leaders of Oecussi. The Fundacão Fatu Sinai Oecussi (FFSO), the local NGO partner of The Asia Foundation, accompanied the delegation. The delegation had taken the long and uncomfortable road and ferry journey from Oecussi to the capital. They planned to present their proposal for a workable system of border passes to the most senior officials of the Timor-Leste government, including the President Jose Ramos-Horta and the Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão.

It was not their first trip to Dili to present this plan, but they still came with hope and some confidence that they would be heard.

Bruce Tolentino is The Asia Foundation’s Director for Economic Reform and Development Programs.

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Economic Opportunity


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