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The Oecussi Ambeno Enclave: part of East Timor isolated inside Indonesia

By Arsenio Bano and Edward Rees - posted Wednesday, 5 February 2003

In the post-colonial period of Indonesia-East Timor relations one issue looms larger than most, and yet is unknown or misunderstood by many observers. It is the East Timorese Oecussi Ambeno Enclave. The Enclave is located on the north shore of Indonesian West Timor some 70 km to the west of East Timor proper. It is comprised of approximately 2700 square km with nearly 50,000 inhabitants. These citizens of independent East Timor find themselves 'inside' Indonesia. The effect of geography upon countries and communities is often understated, however, it is a factor that shapes their past, present and future. As will be revealed, Oecussi's unique geography points towards a unique relationship with Indonesia.

Historically, the Enclave has had a distinct relationship with both the western and eastern regions of Timor. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in the 16th century at Lifau, Oecussi, which served as the capital of Portuguese Timor until the arrival of the Dutch. A hostile local kingdom and the prospect of a better harbour caused the Portuguese to shift their capital to Dili in the 18th century. The Portuguese tradition and the Enclave's history as the birthplace of Catholicism in Timor are the source of considerable pride in the Enclave, inspiring strong sentimental attachment by many in East Timor. At the end of the 19th century the Dutch and Portuguese formalised their shared borders in Timor, ensuring that the Enclave remained attached politically and sentimentally, if not geographically, to Portuguese Timor. Towards the end of Portuguese rule, a ferry linked the Enclave to East Timor proper and there was a limited air link between Dili and the Enclave.

The people of the Enclave share both historical and ethno-linguistic ties with much of West Timor. Trade and family links extend across the border deep into West Timor, from Atambua to Kupang, but are centred largely on Kefamenanu, West Timor's fourth city. The indigenous language of the Enclave is Baiqueno, a dialect of Meto, one of West Timor's major ethno-linguistic groupings. The Enclave is in the unique position of not entirely being of one area or the other. Politically it is clearly East Timorese, but ethnically, geographically and economically its centre of gravity is West Timor.


During the Indonesian invasion, and subsequent occupation of East Timor, Oecussi did not experience much of the violence visited upon the rest of East Timor. Early armed resistance was light, and the pro-independence Falintil (Forças Armadas da Libertaçao Nacional de Timor Leste) guerrilla activities in the Enclave were non-existent. However, Oecussi's underground resistance organisations thrived and played an important role in the national resistance to the occupation. Despite a relatively peaceful occupation, the events of 1999 witnessed wholesale violence. Oecussi experienced mass destruction of property, theft and the murder of many pro-independence activists. Indeed, the Passabe Tumin massacre of September 1999 resulted in Oecussi suffering the country's second-largest mass killing.

The International Force for East Timor (InterFET) arrived in Oecussi on 22 October 1999, some time after it had secured the rest of the country. Subsequently, East Timor and Oecussi came under the administration of the United Nations Transitional Administration East Timor (UNTAET). Oecussi's experiences under UNTAET highlighted some positive and negative trends with regards to its future as an East Timorese Enclave 'inside' Indonesia.

While the Oecussi-West Timor border has not experienced the same pro-Indonesia militia activities as seen on the East Timor- West Timor border, Oecussi suffers from acute isolation due to East Timor's independence.

First, there is the matter of transportation. The Enclave should be viewed as being an island within an island. Its connections with West Timor have been seriously disrupted. Its physical links with East Timor have been largely severed. During UNTAET there existed a complete reliance on UN air and sea assets for movement of personnel and goods between the Enclave and East Timor. These operations largely excluded East Timorese and will end with the departure of peacekeepers in 2004. While a small ferry service commenced in May 2002, it relies on a heavy and unsustainable subsidy from an international donor. Efforts to develop a system of land access between East Timor and the Enclave have not borne fruit. Communications are very poor. UN telephone systems and a very limited Telstra service are the only means of communication with the outside world. This isolation has limited the possibilities of Oecussi residents to participate in the national life of East Timor. The population of the Enclave does not enjoy the same access to services and information as the rest of the country. Furthermore, the current lack of trade activity due to the Enclave's isolation has hampered its economic recovery and development.

Improved movement of personnel and goods is vital to the future development of the Enclave and normalization of relations with West Timor. Some have argued that this is vital to its survival. The Enclave's long-term economic prospects are tied to West Timor more than anywhere else. Given its geography, history, tenuous communications and transportation links with East Timor, Oecussi's source of indigenous income will most probably be based on its relationship with West Timor.

What to do with an Enclave that finds itself so isolated?

During the UNTAET period little was done to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Enclave and thereby to secure East Timor's future sovereignty over the territory. However, some initiatives have shaped thinking on a future policy for Oecussi.


In June 2000, the international District Administration proposed that Oecussi should be developed along the lines of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Such an initiative called for a soft border regime with Indonesia with reduced tax and tariff rates and unique land and labour codes. In other words, a commercial framework designed to make the Enclave attractive. Notwithstanding some drawbacks, a SEZ would be well situated to exploit the market of 1.2 million people in West Timor. In July 2000 the District Conselho Nacional da Resistencia Timorense (CNRT) Congress called for a "governmental" arrangement in which Oecussi would be declared a Province rather than a District, thus enhancing its access to central government funds and improving political influence in the capital. At the end of the year, and at the urging of the District Administration, the Minister for Internal Administration called for an Oecussi Task Force to develop a comprehensive Enclave Policy. It never materialised.

In July 2001 some quarters proposed that the Enclave be declared a demilitarised 'Peace Zone'. This proposal articulates an argument which serves as a possible starting point for a long-term comprehensive Enclave Policy. The oft-stated foreign policy of East Timor includes the fundamental tenet of developing harmonious relations with Indonesia. As part of broader East Timor-Indonesia relations, a 'Peace Zone' would accommodate Indonesian economic and security interests in West Timor. It would thereby assist in the future development of Oecussi. Furthermore, it is argued that the 'Peace Zone' concept is premised upon the notion that military solutions for the Enclave will only serve to antagonise Indonesia and further isolate the Enclave. The key to the 'Peace Zone' concept is that the future of the Enclave requires substantial bi-lateral negotiations with Indonesia on the Enclave as its future depends on West Timor and Jakarta second only to Dili.

Also, during 2001 two community groups formed to discuss the future of the Enclave. Based in Oecussi and Dili, the Oecussi Enclave Research Forum and the Oecussi Advocacy Forum both proposed local governance initiatives that called for various forms of regional autonomy, or 'Special Status'.

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An earlier version of this article was first published in Inside Indonesia.

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About the Authors

Arsenio Bano is a native son of Oecussi. He is now Secretary of State for Labour and Solidarity in the East Timor Public Administration and sits on the Oecussi Task Force. Formerly he was Executive Director of East Timor's NGO Forum.

Edward Rees, served with the United Nations in Timor-Leste, Kosovo and New York and is now Senior Adviser to the Peace Dividend Trust. Peace Dividend Trust has offices in Dili, Kabul, Ottawa and New York.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Arsenio Bano
All articles by Edward Rees
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