24 August 2010

Tackling Gang Violence in Timor-Leste

From UNMIT Dili, 18 August 2010 - The Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste constitute a substantial social problem for the authorities.

The violence that erupted in Timor-Leste in 2006 is a constant reminder of how quickly unrest and trouble can spread.

Although many members of Martial Arts Groups (MAGs) are entirely peaceful, there are elements within the membership who consistently resort to illegal behaviour and violence.

Januario Freitas is the Baucau District Coordinator for Kera Sakti (Magic Monkey), which claims to be the largest MAG in Baucau. He admits that some Kera Sakti members are involved in violence:

“We have thousands of members around the country. The problem is that even within a single district members are so spread out. It makes it very hard to control individuals. Personal vendettas often trigger violence between rivals, and the actions of individual members are blamed on the whole MAG”.

Kamis Miguel Mendonca is the Head of Community Policing in Baucau. He says there are seven MAGs operating in the district, with a total membership of over 3,000.

“Since the start of the year there have been around 15 incidents involving MAGs in the Baucau district; resulting in one fatality, multiple injuries and substantial physical damage. We can't always wait for the formal justice system to deal with offenders. We have to work with the communities to identify and defuse potential conflicts before they end in violence”.

A recent roundtable discussion in Baucau, organised by the United Nations Development Programme’s Justice Sector project, highlighted many of the key issues and challenges relating to the MAGs, and the wider community. It was attended by the leaders of the main MAGs, the Police, the Church, the Baucau Sub-District Administrator, and members of the civil community. It was an opportunity to exchange ideas and build bridges between the different groups.

In January Mr Mendonca spearheaded the establishment of a Baucau Task Force, to try to address the violence. Although they have seen some success in preventing the spread of violence, when an incident occurs, they are limited in their ability to tackle the root causes of the problem.

“Lack of education, unemployment and family issues are the key factors leading these young people to fight”, Mr Mendonca explained.

The issue of unemployment cannot be ignored. A huge proportion of the MAG members in Baucau are out of work. Most of them are young men aged between 15 and 30. Without job prospects the men are left angry, bored and impoverished. Joining a gang, and fighting, often serves as a way to vent their frustrations.

One idea that is enthusiastically supported by the leaders of the MAGs is the creation of a National Martial Arts competition.

“It would provide an outlet for the groups”, says Egidio Alixo Soares, who is the Baucau Coordinator for another MAG, Korka.

“Members train around three times a week and at the moment the only way to express their skills and training is through street fighting. A national competition would bring MAGs into the mainstream and celebrate Martial Arts as a sport”.

Embracing the positive aspects of MAGs is an approach favoured by FESTIL (Federation of Traditional Self-Defence Arts in Timor Leste), the fledgling national umbrella organisation for the MAGs.

“Every year over 1000 young men join MAGs. Allowing them to become alienated from society is only going to cause more problems. They need to be legitimised and supported”, says Sergio Gusmao de Freitas Belo, the President of Baucau’s FESTIL.

All parties in Baucau agree that the Martial Arts Law, which was brought into force in July 2008, could be an important tool for educating MAG members about their civic responsibilities and the consequences of their actions.

But Regina de Sousa, the Baucau Sub-District Administrator, says that the detail of the Martial Arts Law has not filtered down to the grassroots of the MAGs:

“Copies of the Martial Arts Law have been distributed to FESTIL and all the MAG leaders in Baucau. They now have a responsibility to inform their members about the law. Hopefully the threat of imposing sanctions upon MAGs will deter individuals from breaking the law”.

Gui Karson Goncalves is the Baucau District Secretary for PSHT (Brotherhood of the Sacred Heart Water Lily), a MAG which is often involved in fighting with Kera Sakti. With around 1,000 members in the Baucau District he says the PSHT leadership struggles to control all the sub-groups and individuals. He is a strong supporter of the Martial Arts Law:

“Tough Government penalties against those who commit misdemeanours are the best way to resolve the conflict. We don’t want juvenile delinquents causing trouble any more than the authorities do.”

All the involved parties in Baucau agree that discussion and cooperation between the MAGs, the Police and the community is vital. Dialogue meetings, as organized by UNDP, provide a forum for sharing information and experiences. Violence between the MAGs is of particular concern in a country where stability and conflict-resolution are paramount. To ensure that Timor-Leste’s future is peaceful the emphasis has to be on preventing conflict, rather than reacting to it.

See also

Gang violence is threatening to ruin the chance for peace and prosperity in East Timor

2009 ETLJ 1 The Regulation of Martial Arts in East Timor: An Overview of Law No 10 of 2008 on the practice of martial arts

Ethnicity, Violence & Land & Property Disputes in Timor-Leste
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