07 March 2009

East Timor Villagers seek peace through traditional rituals

DILI, 4 March 2009 (IRIN) - More than 2,000 people braved the heat on 28 February to attend a ceremony in Viqueque District that the government hopes will cool 50 years of tension.

Held in a suco (village) in Viqueque Town sub-district, the nahe biti bo'ot ("spreading the large mat") ceremony was the result of a joint dialogue project between the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The objective is to facilitate dialogue to reduce tension caused by the reintegration of internally displaced people (IDPs) into communities. About 100,000 people were displaced during the crisis of 2006 and most have since returned home.

In January 2009, a fight in a secondary school developed into a full-blown conflict, which saw 118 families flee their homes in fear. The government assembled a team to help the IDPs, who have since returned.

Conflict in Viqueque dates back to 1959 when there was an uprising against Portuguese colonialists. Rivalries between pro- and anti-independence groups during periods of Portuguese and Indonesian occupation have never been quelled.

The dialogue project is set to run until June and may be extended before being handed over to the government, said project manager Jose M Cabral Belo.

"The communities often don't want to receive IDPs. One problem is about land disputes and there have been conflicts between political party followers and members of martial arts groups," he added.

Augusto Pinto, 28, a member of the Persaudaraan Setia Hati Terate ("Lotus Faithful Heart Brotherhood") martial arts group, praised the ceremony because it sought to facilitate resolution.

Village elders made the call for peace through terra bandu, traditional law usually used to control environmental degradation by banning the hunting of certain animals or the felling of certain foliage. In this instance, the elders "banned" violence.

Ben Larke, social reintegration adviser to the Minister of Social Solidarity, said, "The point of nahe biti is that by having the presence of the elders you open a channel of communication to the ancestors. When something is made bandu, a sacrifice is offered. That means that anyone who comes and reopens those issues is working against the ancestors."

The sacrifice came in the form of three buffalo and four pigs. The animals were speared until they bled to death before the meat was cooked and served for dinner with traditional dancing for entertainment.

Dialogue meetings usually take one of two forms - the first involves facilitating a meeting and instigating dialogue between opposing groups. The second is a cultural ceremony.

Larke added, "Nahe biti can be used in a variety of settings. In the past, it used to apply to all crimes. Nowadays, it's a local-level dispute-resolution mechanism."

When asked if he thought there would be conflict in future, Augusto Pinto said, "There are many youth here today and I can't speak on behalf of all of them, but let's see what happens in the next few months."


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