May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The Oecussi-Ambeno enclave

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Arsenio Bano and Edward Rees

The Oecussi-Ambeno enclave is an isolated district of East Timor on the north shore of Indonesian West Timor. Seventy kilometres west of East Timor proper, it is 2700 square kilometres in size, with nearly 50,000 inhabitants. Its citizens find themselves inside Indonesia. Oecussi's unique geography points to a unique relationship with Indonesia.

Historically, the enclave has had a distinct relationship with both the western and eastern regions of Timor. The Portuguese, the first Europeans in Timor, arrived in the sixteenth century at Lifau, Oecussi. It served as the capital of Portuguese Timor until the arrival of the Dutch, a hostile local kingdom, and prospects of a better harbour caused the Portuguese to shift their capital to Dili in the eighteenth century. The Portuguese tradition, and the enclave's position as the birthplace of Catholicism in Timor, are the source of considerable pride there and throughout East Timor.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Dutch and Portuguese formalised their shared border in Timor. The enclave remained politically and sentimentally attached to Portuguese Timor, but not geographically. Towards the end of Portuguese rule, a ferry linked the enclave to East Timor proper, and there was a limited air link to Dili. The end of Indonesian rule took Oecussi back to this peculiar status. Politically it now looks to the east. Economically it looks to the west.

However, the people also share ties with Indonesian West Timor. Trade and family links extend from Atambua to Kupang. They are centred 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 Indonesian invasion and occupation did not visit as much violence on Oecussi as it did on the rest of East Timor. Early resistance was light, and no Falintil guerrillas operated in the enclave. However, underground resistance organisations played an important role in the national resistance to the occupation. In 1999, Interfet did not arrive in Oecussi until 22 October, a month after its arrival in Dili. As a result the enclave experienced the mass destruction of property, theft and the murder of many pro-independence activists. The Passabe Tumin massacre of September 1999 was the country's second largest mass killing. This story was part of a desperate plea carried to Interfet soldiers by a heroic boy named Lafu.


East Timor's independence has imposed an acute isolation on Oecussi. It is an island within an island. An international border now seriously disrupts its connections with West Timor and East Timor proper alike. Transport links with East Timor have meanwhile been largely severed. Untaet established air and sea links to move goods and personnel between the enclave and East Timor. But these largely exclude ordinary East Timorese and will end with the peacekeepers' departure in 2004. A small ferry service was intended to commence in June 2002, but it relies on a heavy and unsustainable subsidy from an international donor. Efforts to develop land access have not borne fruit.

An expensive and limited Telstra service is the only public means of communication with the outside world. Oecussi residents do not enjoy the same access to services and information as the rest of the country. A lack of trade hampers economic recovery.

Given its geography, the enclave's long-term economic prospects are tied to West Timor. So what to do with this isolated enclave?

The Untaet period achieved little progress towards long-term sustainability for the enclave that might secure East Timors sovereignty there. However, some initiatives shaped thinking on a future Oecussi policy.

In June 2000, the international District Administration proposed that Oecussi should be developed into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). This called for a soft border regime with Indonesia, reduced tax and tariff rates, and unique land and labour codes - in other words, a commercial framework designed to make the enclave attractive. A SEZ is well situated to exploit the market of 1.2 million people in West Timor.

In July 2000 the District CNRT Congress called for a 'governmental' arrangement in which Oecussi would become a province rather than a district. This would enhance its access to central government funds and political influence.

Urged by the District Administration, the Minister for Internal Administration at the end of 2000 called for an Oecussi Task Force to develop a comprehensive policy. It never materialised.

In July 2001 one of us (Arsenio Bano, then director of the East Timor NGO Forum) proposed the enclave be declared a demilitarised peace zone. The influential Australian Strategic Policy Institute has subsequently echoed this notion. Oecussi could be the centre-piece of the oft-stated foreign policy desire for harmonious relations with Indonesia. Military solutions will only antagonise Indonesia and further isolate the enclave. A peace zone would accommodate Indonesian economic and security interests and thereby help Oecussi to develop. The key is that the future of the enclave requires substantial bilateral negotiations with Indonesia, 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 called for various forms of regional autonomy.

Most importantly, the constitution of the Democratic Republic of East Timor, passed by the Constituent Assembly in March 2002, created the political space for future debate and legislation on the enclave. It recognises the uniqueness of the enclave in three sections, and states that Oecussi-Ambeno shall be governed by a special administrative policy and economic regime.

In the wake of this recognition, and of another proposal by the community and the Oecussi District Administration, the Chief Minister of East Timor's government established a high level Oecussi Task Force. It is charged with finding a holistic solution, linking local governance with border issues and economic development, which is in turn linked to security. It aims to provide flexible administrative solutions to transportation and communication problems. A comprehensive enclave policy would recognise the full range of Oecussi's unique circumstances, be they security, foreign and trade relations, economic development, or internal administration.

The population of Oecussi is well aware that they are on the frontline of East Timor-Indonesia relations. They are open and full of good will towards their neighbours in West Timor whether they are family or former political adversaries. They believe the enclave's geographic intimacy and peaceful relations with West Timor and Indonesia between 1999-2002 are good indicators for a unique relationship. It could be that this small region will take a leading role in managing newly independent East Timor's relations with its giant neighbour.

Arsenio Bano ( comes from Oecussi. He is Secretary of State for Labour and Solidarity in the Government of the Democratic Republic of East Timor and sits on the Oecussi Task Force. Edward Rees ( was Untaet's Political Officer in Oecussi April 2000-July 2001, then became Political Officer to Untaet's National Security Adviser. These opinions are our own and do not necessarily represent those of Untaet or the Government.

Inside Indonesia 71: Jul - Sep 2002

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