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The East Timorese district of Oe-cusse is isolated from the rest of East Timor being surrounded by Indonesia. After the independence ballot in 1999, Oe-cussi enclave suffered extensive infrastructure devastation and human rights abuses and reconstruction has been slow. BD
"Declaring Oe-cusse a peace zone is the best way to facilitate resolution of the enclave’s isolation. Accordingly it should be the first option pursued by the future East Timorese government. Such a declaration must become a legally binding guarantee included in the national constitution soon to be formulated. However, such a legally binding guarantee would lack strength without a treaty between East Timor and Indonesia on Oe-cusse." Arsenio Bano, Executive Director of the East Timor NGO Forum
See also:
June 2001 LHB: In Brief: Oe-cusse
The Isolation of Oe-cusse:

Source: NGO East Timor:

A Peace Zone: An Option for the Future of the Timor Enclave

by Arsenio Bano


Background to Oe-cusse and its geographical context

The enclave of Oe-cusse opens onto the northwest coast of the island of Timor and is encircled to the east, south and west by the border it shares with the Indonesian territory of West Timor, and the district of Kefa in particular. At its closest point it is approximately 80 kilometers west of the border between the rest of East Timor and Indonesian West Timor.

It has been part of East Timor since Portuguese arrived in Oe-cusse in 1515 and remained so during Indonesian rule between 1975 and 1999. As to why the Timor Enclave has always remained with East Timor, the people of Oe-cusse have a saying that East Timor only exists because of Oe-cusse.

The enclave covers a land area of only 2700 km² with a population capacity of around 45 to 50 thousand people. The most spoken language, Baikeno, is specific to the enclave though very similiar to the vernacular spoken in the neighbouring district of Kefa in West Timor. As with the people of Los Palos, Viqueque and other districts of East Timor, most people of the Timor Enclave are at least bilingual, with Indonesian, Tetum and Portuguese spoken in addition to Baikeno. Recently much of the population has been expected to study English and Portuguese.

Oe-cusse’s existence as an integral part of East Timor is seen as a unique though important issue requiring serious study on matters to do with borders, security, the local economy, transportation and communication with the rest of East Timor. Recently, many people from Oe-cusse, including those living in Dili, have begun to discuss special measures towards resolving the enclave’s problems, particularly concerning transport and the local economy.

The peace zone option discussed here is the clear preference of Oe-cusse people for their  future within the East Timor context. It should also be seen as a means to lighten the burden of central government responsibility for Oe-cusse’s isolation. Moreover, if the peace zone option gains momentum in the broader East Timor context, the question of self-determination for Oe-cusse, along the lines of East Timor’s struggle against Indonesia, would not become an issue. Clearly, the issues up for discussion revolve around the relationship between local government in the Timor Enclave and central government in Dili with the aim of resolving the problem of Oe-cusse’s isolation.

Last year for example, the Oe-cusse district council of the CNRT proposed a Special Status option in a CNRT meeting in which the question of special autonomy became one of the main points of discussion. The UNTAET district administration in Oe-cusse has also suggested an Oe-cusse Special Economic Zone (OSEZ). This paper, however, focuses on security and border matters, since perhaps these are the key issues that need to be addressed to resolve the problems of Oe-cusse’s isolation.

Geographical location necessitates special treatment

Being surrounded by Indonesian territory in West Timor makes Oe-cusse’s transport and communication links with Dili and other regions of East Timor all the more difficult. These problems can only be resolved at the national level to ensure that geo-political issues do not obstruct transport and communication between Oe-cusse and Dili.

It was in view of its geographical location that people from Oe-cusse organised two recent workshops, one held in the Dili on March 5, the other in Enclave on April 7 and 8 2001, in which most participants (all from Oe-cusse) conceived of Oe-cusse acquiring special treatment due to it being surrounded by the territory of West Timor. These meetings are not the only documented expression of thoughts on the need for central government to address Oe-cusse’s difficulties arising from its geographical seperation from the rest of the country through unique approaches and special treatment.

Background to security and border issues in Oe-cusse

Oe-cusse’s location necessitates a different approach to security and border arrangements than that to be applied by the central government in Dili.  Hemmed in as it is by the border it shares with Indonesia, a military approach to the defence and security of the enclave is simply not a viable option.

Historically, the Portuguese did not adopt a military approach to the enclave’s security. Following a border incident in 1966 in the sub-district of Passabe, there were only two companies of troops posted to the enclave, one of which was a front-line contingency. Whereas prior to this border incident, the security of the entire enclave was left in the hands of 30 or so civil defence personnel. It is unclear exactly what approach the Portuguese took to border control in Oe-cusse. Nevertheless, during the Portuguese occupation many people from Oe-cusse were able to travel across the border to Kefa in West Timor by obtaining a travel permit, while people from Kefa only required written permission from the District Officer of Kefa to travel to Oe-cusse. At that time many people from both sides of the border were involved in cross-border trade.

During the Indonesian occupation, the Indonesian authorities took a different approach to security in the Timor Enclave than in other parts of East Timor. Elsewhere in East Timor it was territorial and battle battalions, in addition to provincial and district military commands, that conducted military operations against the East Timor resistance movement.  Whereas Oe-cusse only had a District Military Command plus a few members of the Police Rapid Reaction Brigade. While from the outset of the resistance struggle against the Indonesian invasion, Falintil used a different approach in Oe-cusse to that applied elsewhere. In Oe-cusse, resistance to the occupation was limited to the civilian underground movement, Falintil never taking guerilla action in the enclave.

The need to accomodate interests in Dili and Jakarta

A basic requirement for a special resolution of questions about Oe-cusse’s future is for the central government to recognize Oe-cusse’s special and unique situation as being distinct from those of other districts, thus obliging the government to find a unique framework to address and resolve the problems of Oe-cusse’s isolation, in other words special treatment. Such recognition would serve the national interest of Oe-cusse being an integral part of East Timor.

However, the framework adopted must be able to accomodate Indonesia’s interests. This means that whatever the model adopted, whether Oe-cusse is declared a special economic zone or a demilitarized peace zone, it must be capable of accomodating Indonesian economic and security interests, particularly in West Timor. Currently many UNTAET and East Timor politicians are giving priority to the relationship between Dili and Jakarta. Given its status as an enclave of East Timor surrounded by Indonesian West Timor, this bilateral relationship could be seen as advantageous to Oe-cusse, provided Indonesia also considers good relations beneficial to its interests in the western part of the island. After all, the local economy of the Indonesian territory surrounding Oe-cusse has long benefited from trade in cattle and other interactions with the enclave. Obviously bilateral solutions to existing problems in Oe-cusse would need to involve the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Economic Affairs and Internal Affairs, with an Oe-cusse desk in each of these ministries to address issues specific to Oe-cusse.

The reality on the ground in Oe-cusse

Oe-cusse’s security has been the responsibility of Jordanian Peace Keeping Forces since the transitional administration was established there. (It is worth mentioning that in contrast to other districts, several government departments are not represented in the transitional district administration of Oe-cusse.) A June 2000 research paper by a team from Kings College analysing security and defence options for East Timor asserts that Oe-cusse constitutes a special case, with very weak security in terms of its air, land and sea approaches.  Moreover, the Indonesian invasion in 1975 demonstrated that Oe-cusse is not able to be militarily defended from external invasion. Consequently, a military approach to the enclave’s security should be off the agenda.

Meanwhile, the most urgent issue on the ground is the enclave’s isolation in terms of transportation and communication links with other parts of East Timor, including Dili. Since the beginning of this transition period, only international UN staff working in Oecusse have had access to email, internet and telephone communications there. Meanwhile, local community access to transport remains very limited. Only international UN staff, NGOs and community leaders are able to travel by air with the UN, the sole operator of flights in and out of Oe-cusse.) While UNTAET has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a company to run a ferry between Oe-cusse and Dili, the service is not yet in operation. And even when it does commence it is unclear just how many people among the Oe-cusse community will be able to afford the $US20 return fare.

This problem of isolation is affecting the economic development of East Timor due to a lack of access to economic activity and markets now centred in Dili. Many products supplied from Dili are very expensive and beyond the means of local people, in contrast to cheaper goods sourced from across the border in Kefa, West Timor. Not surprisingly, people in Oe-cusse are very worried about their futures in the abscence of concrete plans for sustainable solutions to their transport and communication problems.

This is one concrete example of the tardiness of the transitional administration of UNTAET/ETTA. In a memorandum dated June 27, 2000, Edward Rees, a Political Officer of UNTAET, wrote that government in East Timor is faced with two options in regard to Oe-cusse’s difficulties: either to neglect to address the problems, which could provoke economic and political conflict in the enclave that in turn could lead to the integration of Oe-cusse within Indonesian West Timor; or to substantially subsidize a ferry service linking Oe-cusse and Dili from a government budget allocation Rees estimated would need to be around $US1.5 annually.

In the meantime many people in Oe-cusse have become involved in trading in smuggled goods brought in over mountain trails from West Timor, in the abscence of a regulated system of border control that would otherwise enable the smooth passage of legal cross-border trade. One of the deliterious impacts of this black market is that it is only a matter of time before people from Oe-cusse are labelled smugglers, a stereotype bound to impact upon Oe-cusse’s credibility on the national stage.

Peace and security options for Oe-cusse

While several options to address Oe-cusse’s security needs have been identified, it needs to be remembered that whatever approach to security is applied in Oe-cusse, it must address the problems of the enclave’s isolation discussed above.

On receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in Norway in 1996, Jose Ramos Horta proposed that a future East Timor state be a demilitarized zone of peace and development, a state without an army, with the Security Council of the United Nations responsible for its security and defence. Obviously, the formation of an East Timor Defence Force (FDTL) four months ago has rendered Horta’s 1996 proposal a virtual irrelevance for East Timor nationally.  But it is not without relevance as a possible approach to the unique security circumstances of the Timor Enclave.

In its reference to Oe-cusse, the Kings College study on defence options for East Timor mentioned above indicates that only one low-profile military unit should be stationed in the enclave, with the purpose of merely signifying East Timor’s authority over Oe-cusse. While such proposals for soft or low-profile approaches to address Oe-cusse’s security needs have yet to be analysed in depth, there are other options to be considered.

The first option is for the application of a uniform security and border policy covering the border regions of Bobonaro and Suai as well as Oe-cusse, which would require the presence of PKF or FDTL forces to patrol the borders in Oe-cusse as an integral part of East Timor territory. This would also mean cross-border arrangements as in Bobonaro and Suai, which would not necessarily involve a ‘soft’ approach to border arrangements.

The second option is for a soft or low-key approach, with a military presence designed merely to indicate East Timor’s jurisdiction over Oe-cusse, as recommended in the Kings College study. However border management would remain the same as in the two other border districts further east, necessitating PKF or FDTL patrols that would contribute little towards resolving Oe-cusse’s isolation, while adding to government expenditure for the military hardware required for military control of the border.

The third option is for a phase by phase move towards declaring Oe-cusse a demilitarized peace zone without the stationing of any FDTL troops or indeed any other military activities. Monitoring of this peace zone would be undertaken by a team of international military observers such as the Military Liaison Officers of the United Nations currently serving under UNTAET. Apart from these observers, Oe-cusse would only require some increase in civilian and border police numbers.

To bring this peace zone option to fruition, the East Timorese government would have to begin lobbying and holding discussions with the Indonesian government towards negotiating a treaty for an Oe-cusse peace zone. Such a treaty would also require the involvement of third parties, preferably the UN Security Council and another neighbouring country, to ensure that both sides observe the treaty’s provisions.

With bilateral and international recognition that such a treaty would attract, declaration of a peace zone for Oe-cusse could be an effective means to demand that Indonesia not intervene militarily in Oe-cusse in the event of a conflict arising with East Timor. If the peace zone model is still considered relevant, its realisation would mean that East Timor would demonstrate its jurisdiction over Oe-cusse essentially in terms of its system of government without that being augmented by much to do with security.

Moreover, a peace zone for Oe-cusse would greatly facilitate negotiating and applying a ‘soft’ model of border control that could provide the basis to address issues of trade between Oe-cusse and West Timor. This cross-border trade could be stimulated by a seperate, lower import tax and duty regime across a ‘soft’ border to facilitate easy passage of trade, making goods supplied from West Timor much cheaper than those with probably higher transport levies and import duties shipped from Dili. It would also avoid the sort of delays involved in Oe-cusse’s more distant economic links with Dili. Such an outcome would clearly demonstrate Oe-cusse’s economic interdependence with West Timor in contrast to its having to wait for things from East Timor.

Phases towards realisation of the third option

The first phase would include the remainder of the transitional period, that is from now until January 2002,  during which the security approach applied by the PKF in Oe-cusse would require a phased reduction in troop numbers from one battalion at present to just one company of between 100 to 150 troops by the beginning of January 2002. At the same time, numbers of civil and border police would need to be increased to between 500 and 700 in total, with border police trained mainly in ‘soft’ methods of border control.

This would require serious discussions between the governments of East Timor and Indonesia on establishing a system of ‘soft’ border control, at the same time basing their bilateral relationship on pursuit of the peace zone option. If Indonesia is agreeable, it would also need to commence a phased reduction in troop numbers along its border with Oe-cusse together with the replacement of these forces with border police. The aim would be that by January 2002, the border between Oe-cusse and Kefa would be controlled by border police on both sides, regardless of the particular system of border control in operation at that time.

The second phase would involve preparation towards establishing a peace zone, with serious discussions on this option beginning to bear fruit by the middle or end of 2002, subject to the progress of these talks. This would be brought to completion by the signing of a treaty on a peace zone for Oe-cusse between East Timor and Indonesia involving the UN Security Council.

A further proposal distinct from the two phases above is for the transitional government  of UNTAET/ETTA to promptly set up a task force made up of a team of officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, Defence and Economic Affairs and also including people from Oe-cusse to prepare a set of recommendations on resolving the Oe-cusse issue that would be presented to the future elected government of East Timor.


Declaring Oe-cusse a peace zone is the best way to facilitate resolution of the enclave’s isolation. Accordingly it should be the first option pursued by the future East Timorese government. Such a declaration must become a legally binding guarantee included in the national constitution soon to be formulated. However, such a legally binding guarantee would lack strength without a treaty between East Timor and Indonesia on Oe-cusse.

A peace zone would lighten Dili’s burden in managing Oe-cusse’s future security, at the same time easing Jakarta’s concerns about how the presence of FDTL or other armed forces in Oe-cusse might impact on security in West Timor. Realisation of a peace zone and ‘soft’ control of the border surrounding the enclave would in turn facilitate economic interaction between Oe-cusse and West Timor and thereby promote regionally integrated development in the enclave that would be expected to reduce the economic burden that Oe-cusse would otherwise impose on the central government in Dili. While all these matters depend on whether Indonesian and East Timorese governments see themselves as standing to benefit from such outcomes, what is more important is that this approach is the one able to resolve the issue of Oe-cusse’s isolation stemming from its enclave status.

Arsenio Bano  Added June 14  see also
Arsenio Bano is the Executive Director of the East Timor NGO Forum, the coordination and information body for local and international NGOs working in East Timor. He is 27 years old, and had begun a degree in Management in Indonesia. He is currently also the Chair of FFSO (Fundacao Fatu Sinai Oe-cusse), an NGO in the enclave of Oecussi, Arsenio’s home District, and Managing Director of Tolas, a human rights newspaper in East Timor. Arsenio was one of a group of students who jumped over the wall into the US embassy in Jakarta some years ago to draw attention to the dire situation in East Timor. He was sent to Portugal. From there he went to London where he worked as Campaign and Research Assistant for the Human Rights organisation TAPOL. He was also a member of the British Campaign for East Timor. He returned to East Timor on 6 October 1999, and worked during the emergency period with the student NGO Renatil, and the CNRT. He is a strong advocate for civil society organisations, and a skilled networker. He speaks Bicaeno (the language of Oecusse), Tetum, Portugese, English and Bahasa Indonesian.

East Timor National NGO Forum / Forum Nacional ONG Timor Lorosa'e  Updated June 15
Umbrella agency for East Timorese Non-Government Organisations (NGOs)
VISION: To contribute to the building of a pluralist, democratic, just and sustainable East Timor through the development of a strong, independent and responsible civil society committed to upholding and making real in the daily life of the community, both village and urban, the full range of human rights so that all East Timorese, particularly the poor and disadvantaged, can enjoy the fruits of liberation and development in an East Timor forever free.
MISSION: To realise its vision by promoting a culture of learning, cooperation, partnership with the community and respect for human rights and good practice amongst East Timorese NGOs and between them and other development actors, both domestic and international, and by serving as a collective, independent voice for the rights and needs of the community.
VALUES AND PRINCIPLES: a rights approach to development; inclusiveness, participation; accountability; gender balance; respect for the environment; non-party political; non-sectarian; good governance; volunteerism.
Kaikoli Street, Dili-East Timor  Telephone +670(390)322772
E-mail:  Homepage:
See: BD: East Timor National NGO Forum / Forum Nacional ONG Timor Lorosa'e - A collection of recent media releases, position-statements, speeches, petitions, reports, and news

See also:

June 2001 LHB: In Brief: Oe-cusse  News added June 26

The Isolation of Oe-cusse:

BD: Peoples' Participation - A collection of recent media releases, reports and articles

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