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Why Indonesia and Timor Leste should involve indigenous people in border dispute talks

Two land borders separate Indonesia and East Timor.

The governments of Indonesia and Timor Leste should include indigenous people in border dispute negotiations between the two countries. The indigenous community of Ambenu people in Timor Leste has kinship ties with the Amfoang people in West Timor, Indonesia, and they have started their own dialogues to solve problems arising from the border disputes.

Impact on society

Two land borders separate Indonesia and East Timor. In the east, a 150km stretch divides the island of Timor in two. In the west, inside Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara Timor province, a 120km curve creates an East Timorese enclave, Oecusse, within Indonesia’s territory. While the eastern part of the border has successfully been negotiated, the border surrounding Oecusse remains disputed.

The prolonged dispute has stalled development of the area. Worse, it has caused tension among the people occupying the border area. Conflict and violence emerged as a result of this uncertain situation.

Stalled negotiations

Indonesia and Timor Leste began negotiating their borders in 2000 following the latter’s vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999. While the eastern border was quickly settled, the border surrounding Oecusse remains unresolved.

Negotiations of the unsettled borders until today have made little progress. The latest meeting of the countries’ foreign ministers in January 2018 did not come up with any tangible solutions.

The two countries based their border negotiations on a 1904 Treaty between the Portuguese and the Dutch, as well as a 1914 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision. But they differ in their interpretations of the 1904 Treaty. Indonesian negotiators insist the border lies in the Noelbesi River, which would shrink Timor Leste’s territory. Timor Leste negotiators say the border lies in the smaller Nonotuinan River.

Indonesian negotiators argued that the basis for setting the border was unreliable. In addition to those unresolved segments, some areas in the sub-district of Bikomi Nilulat in Timor Tengah Utara Regency remain unsurveyed.

Indigenous people’s dialogue

Amid the slow negotiations between the two governments, masyarakat adat (indigenous communities) in both countries have promoted a cultural approach to settle the dispute.

Three masyarakat adat meetings between Amfoang people from Indonesia and Ambenu people from Timor Leste have taken place in Oecusse (Timor Leste) in 2012, Kefamenanu, Timor (Indonesia), in 2012 and Oepoli in Amfoan Timor, Kupang (Indonesia), in 2017.

The last meeting in Oepoli on November 14 2017 brought together four major kingdoms of Timor. Three kings – Liurai Wahali, Liurai Sonbai and King Amfoang – from Indonesia met with King Ambenu from Timor Leste. They were united by the spirit of Nekaf mese ansaof mesa Atoni Pah Meto (One Heart One Soul as Dawan People).

The meeting was set in accordance with the tradition of Timor, signified by ceremonies and rituals.

The kings focused on reviving kinship ties and peace among people with the same ancestry. They agreed to solve all problems based on the principles of peace and kinship. They signed an agreement pledging to see the border between Indonesia and Timor Leste as an administrative border that should not limit and separate their kin relations.

The meeting in Oepoli constitutes a unique case in which international relations, a modern social relations, meets tradition. The meeting was not about settling the interstate border dispute. However, its implications for settling the dispute between Indonesia and Timor Leste cannot simply be neglected.

In Indonesia, the inclusion of masyarakat adat in resolving the border dispute has been started by the active support of the local military command. It facilitated a focused group discussion in May between the government of Indonesia and academics. The discussion found that before Portuguese rule in East Timor border agreements existed between Timorese kingdoms, in the form of oaths.

The governments of Indonesia and Timor Leste should begin to involve indigenous leaders in the border negotiations. They should listen to the aspirations of the indigenous communities to help create a sustainable settlement that benefits both states and their peoples.

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