Vidal Campos Magno, now 29, grew up surrounded by conflict, was a teenager during the final years of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, and then went through the turmoil that followed the 1999 referendum for independence.
“I was involved in the fighting. I remember hanging around with friends, then we’d plan to go and hurt this person or that person. We had to fight because of the political situation.”
It wasn’t until he was accepted into university that Magno decided to change what he calls his “bad behavior.” Now a project coordinator at Ba Futuru, a local peace-building organization, he draws on his experiences to help young people, including former gang members and ex-prisoners.
One of the common problems, he said, is that unemployed youths are stuck in a cycle of alcohol and violence. In East Timor, unemployment among young people is estimated at over 40 percent, and approximately 16,000 young people enter the labor market each year. The problem is expected to grow, with 41 percent of the population under 15 years old, according to government data.
“There’s a lot of youth unemployment and sometimes young people hang around and drink alcohol, then go to the main road to fight each other or throw rocks at cars. This is their reality,” said Magno.
An analysis of drug and alcohol issues in the Pacific by the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2008-2009 concluded that “alcohol is still a substance of concern” in East Timor, but noted a lack of official data.
The most recent national data reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) was in 2006, before a political crisis displaced more than 100,000 people, a tense and violent presidential poll in 2007, and a presidential assassination attempt in February 2008.
There are no government-funded rehabilitation facilities for people addicted to drugs or alcohol, but Pradet, a national mental health NGO, was one of the first groups to provide treatment. It has offered community awareness workshops to prisoners, police and community leaders since 2009, funded by AusAID.
Pradet director Manuel dos Santos told IRIN drug use was still a relatively small problem, but there are fears that it could increase. “Our border does not have a secure system for controlling drugs, so people are consuming more and more, but there’s no specific research to find out how much.”
The regional office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok, Thailand, which oversees East Timor, has no record of drug use or seizure trends in the country.
A December 2010 policy brief by a national conflict-monitoring NGO, Belun, found a “worrying degree of drug use,” including the consumption of sabu-sabu, an illegally manufactured amphetamine, and korneta, a plant that creates a feeling of euphoria.
Dos Santos said most people in East Timor are unaware that over-consumption of alcohol is harmful. “Many who participate in the training are surprised when they find out about the negative impacts of alcohol. Before they receive the information, they say they used to keep drinking until they fell asleep.”
He said workshop participants had recommended creating defined places to sell alcohol, introducing a law restricting children from buying alcoholic drinks, and increasing the tax to make such drinks more expensive.
There are no regulations for the alcohol content in drinks, and no age restrictions on purchasing them. The popular local palm wine (tua mutin) and palm brandy (tua sabu) are both sold in recycled plastic bottles along the roadsides.
“In East Timor, drinking alcohol is part of our tradition, so if you sit down with two or three people, they feel they must drink. But sometimes it causes accidents and sometimes it causes fights,” said Domingos Maia, the drug and alcohol trainer of the National Police of East Timor (PNTL).
The police link alcohol to domestic violence. “Often we see fathers and husbands fighting with their families after drinking too much alcohol,” Maia said.
The most recent demographic survey by the Ministry of Health, in 2010, did not track alcohol or drug consumption, but found alcohol was a significant factor in domestic violence. Of the women who experienced domestic violence, 60 percent said their husbands “get drunk very often,” compared to 26 percent who said their husbands did not drink alcohol at all.
In 2009, Belun started tracking alcohol-related violence through an Early Warning Early Response Monitoring System, set up with the assistance of Columbia University, New York, after noting a rise in alcohol-fueled violence.
Constantino Escollano Brandao, a research and policy specialist at Belun, said alcohol is often a catalyst for violence caused by underlying problems. “For young people [this] could be the stress of finding a job, social jealousy, or not being able to afford to stay in school.”
In the eastern district of Ermera, known for its celebration of the annual coffee harvest in July, drunkenness and causing trouble while drunk have been banned since February 2012, under a traditional form of law and order known as Tara-bandu.
Fines start at US$25. “Since the Tara-bandu there has been a positive change because the number of parties has been limited, and the sanctions discourage drunken people from causing problems,” Brandao told IRIN.
In the capital, Dili, where alcohol and drugs are readily accessible, youth coordinator Magno said the answer is not prohibition or punishment, but education.
“Many young people are stuck in a very negative mindset and it’s not easy to change their bad behavior… but to reduce the violence we also have to reduce the alcohol.” IRIN