Extract from 2007 ETLJ 2 Ethnicity, Violence, & Land and Property Disputes in Timor-Leste by Andrew Harrington
Specific Role of Land and Property in Conflict
While perceived injustice regarding land and property (meaning real, immovable property, e.g. housing) can be very dangerous, it becomes even more so when merged with issues unrelated to land. Horizontal inequality between kaladi and firaku is an important proximate cause in the recent conflict in Timor-Leste. Reiterating Stewart’s view, “the existence of severe inequalities between culturally defined groups” and “where there are such inequalities in resource access and outcomes, coinciding with cultural differences, culture can become a powerful mobilising agent that can lead to a range of political disturbances.”
Land and Property Repercussions from 1999
Immediately following the 1999 referendum, pro-autonomy militias and the Indonesian Military (TNI) pushed or forced hundreds of thousands of Timorese out of Dili and into West Timor as refugees.
After violence wound down, those who had not been forced into West Timor returned to Dili first. For a variety of reasons (e.g. time and relative distance from the city- discussed further below) the first people back were mainly firaku. Upon arrival, they found the scorched earth campaign had left housing particularly hard-hit; the militia had “significantly damaged” up to 30% of houses in Dili, while an estimated 80% of housing across Timor-Leste as a whole was rendered uninhabitable. Housing was in short supply.
Those returnees who arrived in Dili first occupied various lands and properties. These included former Indonesian State properties, private residences, local militia members’ houses, and virtually any intact housing belonging to Timorese who had fled and yet to return. However, the National Land Agency (NLA - Badan Pertanahan Nasional) was among the first destroyed, the records were taken onto the street, soaked with petrol, and burned. This meant many formal title records destroyed, either in the NLA itself or by fire in houses where Timorese left when they fled. This left virtually formal functioning way to handle competing land claims. Since there was no formal system to speak of, incoming Timorese took the path of least resistance and simply ignored the formal regime.For many of those arriving from outside Dili, a formal land system may have been alien given their lack of experience with it.
The situation in Dili was made worse by returning refugees from West Timor and others displaced to the rest of Timor-Leste. The UNHCR and IOM were mandated to plan and implement the return process, but neither organization took complete control over the process, perhaps due to overlapping mandates. Neither agency developed policy stating precisely where returnees would ultimately return; many were therefore returned where they requested, not to where they actually originated. Accordingly, the majority of returnees were sent to Dili, as requested. Transit camps were established, but after spending some time there, returnees were then expected to find their own housing or use the shelter kits given to them (ironically brought from Indonesia). As the only part of the country with economic activity, many returnees remained in Dili, opting not to return to their home districts (where intact housing may not have existed). Indirectly, IOM and UNHCR repatriation activities helped concentrate approximately 53,000 returnees in Dili. Not to disparage either organization, but at the time, housing was not considered a key concern. Return and repatriation were the key aims while the situation was complicated by attacks on ex-militia members by communities, complicated further by militia attacks resulting in the death of three UNHCR workers in Atambua, West Timor. There has since been a movement within the UNHCR to recognize housing and restitution as key issues to ensure sustainable and successful returns, enshrined in the Pinheiro Principles.
Illegal occupation was extremely widespread. The promulgation of Law No 1/2003 required regularization of occupations in exchange for leases with the DNTP and guaranteed continued occupation. Approximately 6000 ‘illegal’ occupants submitted applications to the DNTP for regularization. An estimated 50 percent of housing in Dili was occupied illegally.
Considering the tradition-based land system which persists in some form today in Dili, many Timorese may not have filed any claim to their property. A lack of formal education and experience with the formal system means many Timorese simply may not have known why or how to file a claim. Under the traditional system, land transactions are not registered with the formal system but regulated through local political and ritual authorities. Only if the traditional understanding of ownership is challenged through competing systems (Portuguese or Indonesian titling), or if there is disagreement over the traditional order – official authorities may be involved. The Chefe de Aldeia and the Chefe de Suco – both political authorities that mediate between customary and official system – are important actors. However, if they cannot restore calm, the conflicting parties generally address higher level official administration, such as the district administration’s land and property officers, legal aid organisations or the formal judiciary.
Many Timorese may therefore consider themselves rightful owner of that property according to the customary land system, but they have no formal title. Accordingly, the extent of illegal occupations in Dili could be significantly greater than suspected. Read more.....
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