Subject: Changing face of Timor Leste-RI border

Saturday, August 15, 2009 7:32 PM

SpecialReport: Changing face of Timor Leste-RI border

Sat, 08/15/2009 1:36 PM | Special Report

Since Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) voted for independence from Indonesia 10 years ago, during a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999, Jakarta's interest in development along the border areas has continued to increase.

This has occurred despite frequent complaints over technical problems, such as disruptions to communication equipment at Indonesian military (TNI) posts in Oepoli, Aplala and Napan, which border with Oecusi district in Timor Leste.

The Pancasila eagle coat of arms installed over the border entrance gateway that reads "Welcome to Indonesia" has not lost its glory.

However, the condition of the border crossing is vastly different from a decade ago.

The makeshift barracks accommodating border security troops have been refurbished into a grand building.

The floor, which was previously made out of dirt, has now been paved with ceramic tiles.

A number of supporting facilities, such as immigration, customs and animal and plant quarantine posts, as well as the police posts, have been refurbished, apart from the barracks that once housed 650 TNI personnel.

"All the buildings were built by the central government," said Wirasakti 161 Kupang military commander Col. Dodi Usodo Hargo.

The smiling faces and the polite greetings of officers working at the border entry point are another sign of the changes the area has experienced.

"Previously, the situation in Mota'ain was eerie, but now the situation is very different," said a missionary from Mota'ain, East Timor.

The condition along the 300-km border is becoming more conducive to security.

"I often communicate with officers from the Policia Patrolha Fronteiras (East Timor border police)," said TNI border security force commander Lt. Col. Yunianto.

However, CIS director Winston Rondo said that he thought something was missing from the peaceful relations in the border area - namely a humanistic approach to border control.

"Previously, family gatherings were common on the border, but now they have been prohibited due to illegal levies," said Winston.

Consequently, family gatherings have become covert meetings along the border, with people often using secret paths to meet up with family members that live on either side.

Winston said it would be better if the TNI saw the border as a peaceful zone.

"I always say, don't let tensions run high as it could complicate things. Why don't they let people cross by paying US$5, when a family member is sick for example," he said.

A simple fee could have helped facilitate economic activity in the area, especially in June and August, when former Timor Leste refugees from shelter camps crossed over to Timor Leste to harvest coffee.

During the period, the activity was carried out illegally on covert paths.

Unlike Winston, local resident Picing Palu, saw Mota'ain as a place to earn money.

He decided not to migrate to Dili, Timor Leste, with his wife and two children and to instead pursue the economic potential of the area.

"The *economic* situation is lively. Business would be good if you could open a kiosk because most of the kiosks here are located outside the neutral zone," he said.

Equipped with just a small amount of capital from his hometown, Picing started a business selling basic necessities that has become a thriving enterprise.

"I have to go to Atambua every week to buy goods to meet the needs of people crossing the border," he said.

He keeps part of the profits for growth and future investment.

He also bought a 400 square-meter plot of land located just 20 meters from the border post.

Picing has built a kiosk and a home on the plot and earns a daily profit of between Rp 300,000 and Rp 400,000, from selling various household goods, such as instant food, canned drinks, videos, cds and cell phone vouchers.

"On a good day, I can earn Rp 1 million in profit," he said.

When The Jakarta Post visited the Mota'ain border town recently, dozens of people crossing the border from the Philippines, Portugal and Indonesia were buying their basic necessities from Picing.

The presence of the Mota'ain border gateway has also become a source of income for dozens of teenage school dropouts living in the area.

Equipped with a cart only, they can earn between Rp 100,000 and Rp 300,000 per day acting as porters, earning between Rp 10,000 and Rp 50,000 each way. While those serving foreign citizens are usually paid in dollars.

"Each of us can usually bring home more than Rp 100,000 working on busy days," said Okto Bere, 27, a porter.

He said he used the money for living expenses and the needs of his daughter in Atambua.

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