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

Timor Leste

By V. Bruce J. Tolentino

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

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.

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