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Text by Francisco Santos, Portugal

Oe-Kusi Ambenu / Oe-Cusse Ambeno / Oecussi

The territory usually denominated Enclave of Oecussi, also known as Ambeno, is a district of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor). It has an area of 2,700 sq km, a coastline 48 km long on the Savu Sea, and a land border of more than 200 km with the Indonesian West Timor. The shortest distance between Oecussi and the rest of Timor-Leste is about 80 km. The district is made up of 86 villages and 4 subdistricts: Pante Macassar, Oesilo, Nitibe and Passabe. The capital of the district is Pante Macassar (also know as Pante Makasar and Oecussi town).

The population of Oecussi is some 50,000 people. They are known as the Atoni people and they speak Baikeno, a language akin to the one in neighbouring Kefa district in West Timor. Tetun, Indonesian and Portuguese are also spoken in Oecussi. Most people are Christian Catholic. The principal activities in Oecussi are farming and fishing.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans in Timor. They arrived in the first quarter of the XVIth century and established the first capital of Timor at Lifau, Oecussi. In the next century the Dutch arrived and established a fort in Kupang, West Timor, and the Portuguese moved the capital to Díli.

In 1859 the Portuguese and the Dutch establish a treaty for the division of Timor, between a Dutch Timor (western side) and a Portuguese Timor (eastern side, plus Oecussi). From 1859 to 1916 some territories were swapped between the two colonial powers. Maubara, for example, was once a Dutch enclave in Portuguese Timor.

Oecussi was once a separated kingdom, independent from both Díli and Kupang.

During the border negotiations the Portuguese wanted to exchange Oecussi for territory contiguous to the rest of East Timor, but the king of Oecussi-Ambeno, a nominal vassal of Portugal, refused to agree. Oecussi remained thus politically and sentimentally attached to Portuguese Timor, although geographically surrounded by Dutch Timor.

The Japanese occupied Timor in WWII. After the war, the Dutch Indies became independent and West Timor was included in the new Republic of Indonesia. The new authorities did not claimed any portion of the territory of Portuguese Timor.

In 1975 Portugal withdrew from East Timor and in 28 November 1975 it was proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor. Indonesia invaded and illegally annexed East Timor in December, despite condemnation from the United Nations and the strong opposition of the East Timorese. During the following 24 years about one third of the East Timorese were killed by the Indonesian army.

In 30 August 1999 the East Timorese population voted to become an independent nation. After the referendum the pro-Indonesia militias, backed by the Indonesian army, went on a rampange destroying or looting everything. East Timor was then placed under the administration of the United Nations, in transition to independence. Oecussi was one of the districts more destroyed by the violence of the militias. It was the last district where the UN peacekeeping forces arrived, in 22 October 1999, one month after Dili, and they find it 95% destroyed.

In 20 May 2002 it was proclaimed the restoration of the indepependence of East Timor, now officially called Timor-Leste. According to the constitution, Oecussi (as well as Ataúro Island) shall enjoy special administrative and economic treatment.

During Portuguese rule the border between Oecussi and West Timor was a soft one, with easy trade and family links between both territories.

When East Timor was occupied in 1975 it became an Indonesian province. Surprisingly, Indonesia maintained the administrative boundaries, including Oecussi, and didn't annex it to West Timor, as would seemed "natural". As part of the Indonesian province of East Timor, the people of Oecussi had no border between the district and West Timor.

The restoration of independence has isolated again Oecussi, with two borders and 80 km of Indonesian territory between the district and the rest of Timor-Leste. The isolation is a serious problem for the future development of Oecussi. Communications and transport links are difficult. There is a cargo barge service which is not reliable.

There are proposals to make Oecussi a demilitarized "peace zone", with a soft border, to facilitate the economic relations and to alliviate the security tensions with West Timor (Indonesia).

During the UN administration the peacekeeping force has set up four border control posts along the land border. Indonesia has rejected the UN proposal to open a land corridor, through Indonesian territory, between Oecussi and the rest of Timor-Leste.

The district of Oecussi is also known by other names and different spellings. The official name in Tetun is Oe-Kusi Ambenu; the official Portuguese name, according to the Timorese constitution, is Oe-Cusse Ambeno. Other spellings include the following and other variants, with and without Ambeno: Oecusse, Ocussi, Oe Cusse, Oé-cussi, OeCussi, Oekussi, Oekusi, Wekusi. Sometimes, like in the UN map, the district itself is called Ambeno and its capital is called Pante Macassar (Oecusse). Despite the official names, it seems that the most used in English is Oecussi (for example in UN documents) or Oecussi-Ambeno.


During the post-referendum violence of 1999 most of the Oecussi inhabitants were deported or forced to flee, many to refugee camps in West Timor. The return to home was a difficult task, accomplished with the help of UNHCR. The photo shows refugees/deported returning home, at a border point between Oecussi (Timor-Leste) and West Timor (Indonesia).

This and other photos are at (French languaged): www.math.jussieu.fr/~kahn/Timor/Timor.html

 A UN map of Oecussi showing the location and towns from www.un.org/Depts/Cartographic/map/profile/timor.pdf

Source: http://mondediplo.com/maps/IMG/artoff2029.jpg

This map is adapted from: http://oecussi.no.sapo.pt/terra2.htm

This last map is at the site of the Associação dos Militares do Oé-Cussi (association of the former Portuguese military who served in Oecussi). The site (http://oecussi.no.sapo.pt/index.htm) has many old and new photos of Oecussi. The photos are in several links (not only in FOTOGRAFIAS).



This page was last time updated 01/04/10 .