Friday, May 26, 2006

Stranger than fiction

A few hours ago Indonesia closed the border between West and East Timor, citing security concerns caused by the continuing violence in the east. By closing a popular channel for exporters and importers, Indonesia is likely to hit the East Timorese economy hard and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis developing in the country.

Are Indonesia's security concerns justified? Talk of destabilisation from the east seems a little rich, coming from a country which has so often used the rugged, porous border to destabilise its neighbour. I doubt whether any East Timorese militia are planning on storming across the border into West Timor to kill civilians and burn villages.

It seems more reasonable to attribute Indonesia's closure of the border to a desire to turn the screws on the fledgling state to its east. Indonesia has never really accepted East Timorese independence, and there has been a fair bit of crowing in Jakarta about the crisis of the past few weeks. Indonesia may well believe that by intensifying this crisis it can weaken the argument that it should be more conciliatory toward the separatist movements in West Papua and Aceh. It may be able to use East Timor as an argument that separatism leads to ruin. Indonesia may even hope that in the long term East Timor becomes so chaotic that Australia will have to reverse its policy of support for independence and once again embrace the integrationist arguments still made in Jakarta.

The closure of the border could be especially bad for Oeucussi-Ambeno, the East Timorese enclave surrounded on three sides by West Timor and on one side by the Indian Ocean. After East Timorese independence Indonesia refused to allow the creation of a land bridge or international road linking the enclave with the rest of East Timor. More recently the inhabitants of the enclave have been able to travel through West Timor to the rest of their country more easily, but the closure of the border will for the time being end such travel. And with Dili in flames, it is hard to believe that the vital sea link that substituted for a land bridge will not be severely disrupted. Will the 50,000 or so inhabitants of Oeucussi-Ambeno be completely cut off from the rest of the world?

There is a strange Kiwi connection with Oeucussi-Ambeno: in the 1970s the Auckland-based underground publisher, anarchist, and general weirdo Bruce Grenville created a hoax 'Sultanate of Occussi-Ambeno', and presented himself as its Sultan. Grenville issued stamps of his own, and was able to con several tiny states like Liechenstein into establishing diplomatic relations with him. Oeucussi-Ambeno's present status as a prison-enclave seems hardly less bizarre than Grenville's creation.


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