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Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste

  • Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg


Martial arts groups in Timor-Leste have a nationwide reach and have offered a resource of physical and social engagement for youth and adults for several decades. Yet, their involvement in crime, politics, and violent clashes, and their notorious reputation as troublemakers posing a threat to security and peace, have caused the government to permanently ban three major groups. Based on intensive fieldwork and qualitative interviews with members and leaders of illegalized groups, this analysis explains why the young democracy's decision is not contributing to building peace. The three main findings from the interviews are that root causes of violence are not addressed by the ban, criminalization draws more people into illegality, and the positive aspects of these groups, which could potentially contribute to peace, are neglected.
Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts
Groups in Timor-Leste
Janina Pawelz
Martial arts groups in Timor-Leste have a nationwide reach and have offered a
resource of physical and social engagement for youth and adults for several decades.
Yet, their involvement in crime, politics, and violent clashes, and their notorious
reputation as troublemakers posing a threat to security and peace, have caused the
government to permanently ban three major groups. Based on intensive eldwork
and qualitative interviews with members and leaders of illegalized groups, this
analysis explains why the young democracy’s decision is not contributing to building
peace. e three main ndings from the interviews are that root causes of violence
are not addressed by the ban, criminalization draws more people into illegality, and
the positive aspects of these groups, which could potentially contribute to peace, are
Keywords violence, security, peacebuilding, martial arts, Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste emerged from the ashes of war to become independent in 2002. e
24 years of Indonesian occupation were marked by violence, displacement and
starvation, and about one-third of the East Timorese population lost their lives.
The era of independence has brought liberation and new opportunities to the
young democracy, yet the country continues to face major obstacles. Besides the
challenges of nation building, democratization, decentralization, and overcoming
four centuries of Portuguese colonization, peacebuilding remains the ultimate
goal in the post-conflict period. In this regard, violence-prone groups, such as
martial arts groups, are widely considered to be a major threat to peace. They
played an important role during the crisis of 2006 that led to the breakdown of
the state, and they are held responsible for numerous violent clashes between
rival groups, the burning down of dozens of houses, and spreading a feeling of
insecurity among the population. They are deeply entangled with the political
Asian Journal of Peacebuilding Vol. 3 No. 1 (2015): 121-136
Research Note
© 2015 e Institute for Peace and Unication Studies, Seoul National University
ISSN 2288-2693 Print, ISSN 2288-2707 Online
Janina Pawelz
arena and the security forces, and reportedly have been used for political
intimidation, attacks on enemies, and self-defense of political parties (Scambary
2006; TLAVA 2009). Violence-prone groups challenging the legitimacy of the
state are a common feature of post-conict countries (see, for instance, Snyder
2000). erefore, the measures taken to ensure eective control over these groups
are of major importance. Repression is likely to be an easy rst choice, but it holds
tremendous potential for further aggravating the problem. The case of Timor-
Leste shows that peacebuilding measures need to be carefully designed in order
to prevent violent backring.
is article presents the consequences of a fairly new regulation designed to
reduce violence and martial arts activities in Timor-Leste. Acknowledging that
one mans freedom ghter is another mans terrorist, it remains dicult to draw
an objective line between violence-prone groups and civil society organizations.
In the case of Timor-Leste, the regulation called for the disbandment of three
martial arts groups and has sharply divided public opinion, ranging from a
necessary move to ensure security in the country to a violation of the human
right of freedom of association. The research underlying this article is based
on interviews conducted in Timor-Leste in 2014 with leaders and members of
martial arts groups, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs),
youth workers, state representatives, and members of the Regulatory Commission
of Martial Arts (KRAM); as well as on research findings from local and
international NGOs, press releases, and newspaper articles. Major findings are
that the regulation may halt martial arts activities and street ghts, but it fails to
address the root causes of violence, may push people into illegality and organized
crime, and neglects positive aspects related to martial arts groups such as their
social role in the community.
Martial Arts Groups and Violence in Timor-Leste
In the post-liberation period, violence by youth and martial arts groups has been
a focus of the national and international news media, the Timorese government,
and development aid organizations. While the Timorese government is concerned
about stability and security in the country and faces the threat of becoming a
failed state,” the international media fuels public fear with sensational headlines
of rioting youth threatening the country’s path to prosperity and peace. At the
same time, several NGOs and development aid agencies are calling for more
support for Timor-Lestes young generation (Plan Timor-Leste 2007).
e watershed event of the 2006 crisis drew much attention to Timor-Lestes
youth and martial arts groups and evoked these contradistinctive views. e crisis
started when members of Timor-Lestes military (F-FDTL), who were originally
from the western part of the country, submitted a petition to top government
Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste
leaders claiming that they were being discriminated against by soldiers from the
eastern part. In early 2006, 549 soldiers were dismissed for desertion, and the
situation escalated when a demonstration of the so-called petitioners and their
civilian supporters, mostly unemployed youth, turned into a riot (Scambary 2009;
International Crisis Group 2006). e violence spread quickly as more gangs and
civilians got involved. In the end, the crisis caused an estimated 150,000 internally
displaced persons due to destruction of their homes and property during the
violence between the police, the military, and various martial arts groups. Within
two months, up to 38 people died and 1,650 houses were destroyed (International
Crisis Group 2008). Almost overnight, Timor-Lestes martial arts groups became
notorious for daily clashes between rival groups, or between martial arts groups
and international security forces—for stone-throwing, burning down houses, and
committing homicide, and even for being “mobs-to-hire,” since rumors held that
martial arts groups were being paid and manipulated by political leaders (TLAVA
2009; Plan Timor-Leste 2007).
Timor-Leste is home to a huge array of social organizations, including
martial arts groups. e common ground for martial arts groups is the practice of
a particular form of sports, such as karate, pencak silat, judo, or taekwondo. ey
have complex histories dating back to the Indonesian occupation, were partly
involved in the liberation struggle, and are politically and personally affiliated,
creating a complex, nationwide network of alliances.
Martial arts groups can be found in all 13 districts of the country, with PSHT
(Persaudaraan Setia Hati Terate) being the largest and most inuential one with,
by their own account, a total of 35,000 members across all thirteen districts (PSHT
leader, Oct. 16, 2014).
PSHT originated in Indonesia, just like their rival group
Kera Sakti (IKS/Ikatan Kera Sakti). Both were introduced in Timor-Leste in the
early 1980s; they practice the martial art called pencak silat, yet in two dierent
styles. e group KORK (Kmanek Oan Rai Klaran) is originally from Timor and
emerged around the same time as PSHT and Kera Sakti (Kera Sakti leader, Oct.
25, 2014). Their histories are complex and some groups actively supported the
independence movement by changing their names and participating politically
in the clandestine front. For instance, PSHT changed its name to Fuan Domin
and operated secretly to avoid repression by the Indonesian occupiers for their
involvement in the political struggle for independence. Today Fuan Domin, like
Kera Saktis counterpart, Assosiasaun Joventude Apoiu Dezinvolvimentu (AJAD)
and Padjajarans group, Kombat, is part of the umbrella organization Klibur
Organizasaun Rejistensia Nasional Timor Leste (KORENTIL) (Fuan Domin
leader, Nov. 6, 2014).
PSHT, Kera Sakti, and KORK are well known for their rivalries and were
banned in 2013 by a government regulation. There are still legal groups in
Timor-Leste, including Pajajaran, Persisai Diri, Seruling Dewata, Rajawaliputih,
Wushu (formerly Kungfu Master), that practice martial arts such as karate,
Janina Pawelz
kempo, taekwondo, shindo, and aikido. As opposed to the Indonesian original,
the Timorese style of pencak silat is offensive and aggressive, rather than self-
defensive and awareness oriented (NGO leader, Oct. 9, 2014). It is important
to note that PSHT, Kera Sakti, and KORK are considered to be heavily involved
in violence, and these are the groups most oen referred to when talking about
martial arts groups” in Timor-Leste.
There are official and informal affiliations among martial arts groups,
political parties, politicians, and the security forces. In the majority of cases the
links are based on personal, clandestine, and kinship alliances, as well as on
family ties (Myrttinen 2010). e large percentage of martial arts group members
in the police force has led to various problems, such as informing fellow martial
arts members about a scheduled raid, taking sides during street fights leading
to arbitrary arrests, and hence ineectively solving community problems (NGO
leader, Oct. 9, 2014). When then Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão ordered the
members of the police (PNTL) to quit their martial arts groups in January 2014,
993 members (more specically, 654 from PSHT, 243 from KORK, and 96 from
Kera Sakti) declared their loyalty to the police force by officially surrendering
their martial arts uniforms (Jornal Nacional Diario 2014). These numbers are
evidence of massive inltration of martial arts members into the police.
Although the bulk of group members consists of ordinary young men,
high-ranking leaders are often well educated and hold high positions in the
government (political leader, Sept. 26, 2014). High-ranking leaders, who are
commonly in their forties, fifties or sixties, provide guidance, protection and
patronage, and are sometimes said to have magical powers (Myrttinen 2010).
Links between martial arts groups and politicians or political parties are often
denied and remain uid, informal, and tied to personal alliances. Nevertheless,
martial arts groups are a major source of quick political mobilization, especially
during election periods when the threat of political violence, possibly caused by
political manipulation, rises. Martial arts groups also provide personal security
for politicians during the campaign period (youth worker, Oct. 22, 2014). While
most relationships remain secret, some are open secrets. In the elections of 2012
a new political party, KHUNTO, participated for the rst time and only missed
the three percent threshold by 150 votes. is surprisingly high level of support
can be explained by its aliation with the martial arts group KORK (Pawelz and
Myrttinen 2012).
e Decision to Ban PSHT, KORK, and Kera Sakti
In 2008, the government of Timor-Leste passed a law on the Practice of Martial
Arts in Timor-Leste. The first sentence of government law No. 10/2008 reads:
The practice of martial arts activities in Timor-Leste is of social and cultural
Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste
importance for the population, especially among the young people, and its
teaching also is a means of transmitting values and fundamental principles of
conducts and characters [sic] of its practitioners and fans” (Government of
Timor-Leste 2008). However, by 2013 opinion had changed drastically, as the
Council of Ministers (in resolution No. 16/2013: Extinction of Martial Arts
Groups) decided on “the extinction of the groups designated by PSHT, KORK,
and KERAK SAKTI [sic], as well as a number of other measures designed at
restoring public order and social harmony, which are threatened by the actions
committed by these groups” (Council of Ministers 2013). How did the situation
change between 2008 and 2013, prompting this drastic action?
Law No.10/2008 came into force on September 14, 2008. The preamble of
the law drew attention to the “dangerous nature of some of the techniques used
in the practice of Martial Arts” and an increase of violence and criminality as
the reasons for this law, which aims to ensure “the principles of public order and
respect for the rights, freedoms and guarantees of the citizens” (Government of
Timor-Leste 2008). e aim of the law was to regulate existing martial arts groups
and to “discourage the exercise of activities devoid of a proper legal framework,
thus only allowing the practice of martial arts according to the rules made by
the government. The effectiveness of the law for preventing violence related
to martial arts was difficult to gauge as members could breach the regulation
without consequences and cases were not formally processed (Belun 2014a).
On December 22, 2011, the Council of Ministers approved in an
extraordinary meeting “measures to ensure public order and internal security
of the country.” This decision was made against the background of incidents
involving martial arts groups which led to “serious disturbances, destruction of
property and have killed and wounded people.” In regard to the approaching
elections in early 2012, the Council of Ministers decided to “suspend, until
December 21, 2012, the authorization to practice martial arts group activities
that have lately proven to provoke unrest, violence and crime, including a ban on
training and practice of martial arts, and the absolute obligation not to mobilize
people to join the groups who practice martial arts” (Council of Ministers 2011).
Eventually the permanent ban on the three martial arts groups followed.
On July 2, 2013, the government of Timor-Leste published a press release that
explained that the authorities had been facilitating meetings aimed at obtaining
commitment statements from martial arts groups, but these efforts had failed
due to the lack of responsibility of some martial arts leaders. The press release
went on to say that the latest occurrence of violent incidents, including serious
disturbances, property destruction, injuries and deaths, had spread to foreign
countries involving Timorese citizens abroad. For example, it referred to a recent
clash that involved Timorese young men identified with martial arts groups
studying abroad in Surabaya, Indonesia, leaving two dead (Tempo 2013).
It is noteworthy that a human rights NGO in Timor-Leste has criticized
Janina Pawelz
the ban as being invalid and a violation of human rights. The human rights
NGO explained that the constitution of Timor-Leste guarantees the freedom of
association unless the intention of the association is to promote violence. That
means that a court has to decide whether martial arts groups are promoting
violence and decide on further consequences. According to the NGO, the ban
on the martial arts groups is not a law, but a quick decision of the council of
ministers (NGO sta, Dec. 5, 2014).
Consequences of the Ban: ree Findings
Opinion on the banning of the three martial arts groups has been sharply
divided. There is a consensus that the problem of violence and crime needs to
be addressed, but views about causes and needed measures vary. On the one
hand, most people interviewed agreed with the ban because it is a decision by
the leaders of Timor-Leste and therefore has to be followed. Additionally, levels
of violence have declined and fewer street ghts disrupt public order (NGO sta,
Nov. 31, 2014). According to a recent survey by the NGO Belun, 509 out of a
total of 831 respondents (61.3%) agreed that martial arts groups are of no benet
to communities, and 78% of their respondents declared that they absolutely
supported the governments decision to ban PSHT, Kera Sakti, and KORK
(Belun 2014b). On the other hand, a number of people, including researchers,
representatives of local and international NGOs, religious institutions, and even
some members of the Regulatory Commission of Martial Arts (KRAM), have
voiced critical views that reflect careful analysis and alternative perspectives.
They point to the weakness of political leadership, socioeconomic root causes,
weak administrative power, and the failure of the state to protect its citizens. Most
importantly, they perceive the ban as dismissive of the potentially positive role
in society that martial arts groups could play in reaching and teaching neglected
young people. While opinion is divided, many people report that the banning
of the martial arts groups has been ineective as members continue to practice
despite the ban (youth worker, Feb. 20, 2014; Belun 2014b).
Finding 1: Failed Targeting of Root Causes of Violence
The ban on martial arts does not address the sources of youth violence in
general as it only refers to the practice and training of martial arts by these three
particular groups. Belun has called for a more holistic understanding of this
issue, explaining that a ban is not effective when root causes are not targeted.
Causes of violence have been identified as social jealousies due to unequal
access to public goods and services, resources, and employment opportunities
(Belun 2014b). Incidents of youth violence are easily mistaken as martial arts
violence, though most causes of violent incidents have other origins. While the
Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste
number of incidents of martial arts violence has decreased since the ban, youth
violence in general has increased (Belun 2014a, 3). It is difficult to determine
whether an incident of violence can be traced back to martial arts, as people
have multiple identities, such as family, village, school, or a soccer club (NGO
sta, Feb. 21, 2014). While the ban on wearing the typical uniforms that identify
group members might decrease provocations that lead to violence, the ban fails
to the address root causes and sources of ghts, such as land disputes, domestic
violence, social jealousies, inequality, and unemployment (Belun 2014a, 4;
Bolitho 2013). James Scambary notes reasons why the ban might turn out to be
You can stop the martial arts groups but you can’t stop the communal fighting if
you dont remove the source of it. So a lot of it is family stu. It’s just on the surface
it appears to be martial arts groups because people align themselves with a group to
protect themselves. (Bolitho 2013)
A priest explained that the root causes of violence are problems, such as land
disputes, that are transferred from parents to their children who take it to school,
the market, or to groups of friends who are activated in a move of solidarity:
When we gathered with leaders we discovered that martial arts groups are not the
problem. The problems are [those of] individuals. It’s not a group conflict. …The
bishop also realizes that the problem is not the young people but the political leaders.
… For the new generation the government doesn’t care! (church member, Feb. 20,
Martial arts groups include members from all levels of society, including
politicians, security forces, community leaders, as well as young and old,
employed and unemployed. When it comes to martial arts violence, young
men are the main perpetrators, and alcohol and drug abuse often fuel violent
incidents (Belun 2014a). In the violent crisis of 2006, martial arts groups were
heavily involved in violence and destruction of property. However, since then
involvement in violence has decreased significantly. Interview respondents
argue that the causes of the problems are not violent and delinquent behavior by
youth, but political leaders who use and instrumentalize young people. Political
manipulation and instrumentalization of youth was frequently mentioned when
referring to martial arts violence. For instance:
Leaders switch from one political party to another. If there is a disagreement they
leave one party and go to another party. They change their political identities
according to their needs. And the leaders who change the position ask the youth to
make problems with the other party they just le. (church member, Feb. 20, 2014)
Janina Pawelz
Both youth and martial arts groups are influenced by political parties. Leaders of
martial arts groups are in political parties. When there is a campaign the group
members come to provide security because their leader is involved. (NGO sta, Feb.
19, 2014)
In August 2013 there was a reported increase in violence marked by the,
murder and sexual assault, and a growing number of persons were recruited to
organized crime. Most frequently recruited were government employees, taxi
drivers, security guards on the border, airport security guards and personnel,
and youth (Fundasaun Mahein 2013a; 2013b). e reason why many Timorese
opt for organized crime is obvious for the NGO Fundasaun Mahein: “Timorese
citizens of all backgrounds are turning towards organized crime in the midst of
an economy that leaves them little hope for opportunity” (2013b, 2). Prots from
the petroleum industry are high, but only a few people are benetting while many
Timorese live in poverty. The temptation to participate in criminal activities
seems more lucrative and attractive compared to incentives for honest work:
The Timorese economy is stagnating and Timorese have fewer places to turn for
career opportunities. With inflation rising, high unemployment, low salaries for
government workers, and minimal government oversight of criminal activity, the
temptation to participate in organized [crime] is too attractive for many Timorese to
resist. (ibid., 3)
According to Fundasaun Maheins research findings, the influence of
criminal organizations will grow if these root causes are not dealt with:
As a result, as the economy falters it becomes increasingly easy for criminal
organizations to recruit Timorese to work for them. If ordinary citizens face few
options in this country, what incentive do they have to make an honest living when
organized crime oers them far better pay? (ibid.)
Finding 2: Fostering Illegality
Despite its objective to contribute to peace in the country, the ban on martial arts
groups does not target the root causes of violence. In fact, it could even contribute
to the deterioration of the situation by fostering a path to crime and illegality.
Unintended consequences include: illegalized groups go underground and are
more dicult to confront and control; young people are pushed into illegality if
they continue practicing; members may get involved in organized crime; and the
practice of martial arts can be spread to new territories, including Indonesia, as
members cross borders to practice and complete belt-class graduation.
Following the ban, the government failed to prepare alternative ways to
integrate ex-members of martial arts groups into society, which made them very
vulnerable to recruitment to other kinds of collectives, such as organized crime
Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste
groups (NGO leader, Oct. 9, 2014). According to Fundasaun Mahein, the ban
may have hampered martial arts activities, but incidents of violence and murders
continued. The number of legitimate groups that youth could engage in was
reduced while leaving large numbers of criminal groups, hence pushing youth
into criminality.
While this eort has been largely successful in halting martial arts activity, it has done
nothing to lower the overall rate of violence or illegal activity, seemingly displacing
it instead of halting it. … If they are not in martial arts gangs, Timorese youth are
still being recruited by organized crime and divided into various groups to commit
violent and illegal acts. (Fundasaun Mahein 2013a, 8)
Recently Fundasaun Mahein identified the sophisticated hierarchical
structure of an organized crime network operating in Timor-Leste (ibid., 3-4). On
top of the network there is an “intellectual” head who is responsible for analyzing
the economy, politics, law and national security, and who orders and nances the
criminal acts to be carried out. Below the intellectual are the “executive leaders
who coordinate the operations, including drug trafficking, transport of illegal
goods, stealing and re-selling motorbikes, human trafficking and prostitution.
The executive leaders command “operators” who are directly responsible for
the successful implementation of schemes, and who recruit and organize the
execution teams.” e executors are mainly Timorese youth who are “provided
with drugs, transportation, weapons, and any other resources necessary to
complete their assignments, which include theft, terrorizing the population,
sexual assault, drug trafficking, and other violent acts.” Fundasaun Mahein
identified four execution teams that operate in Dili: Kibata, Monster, Dewa
Mabuk, and Mager. One of my interviewees stated that banning the three groups
only caused them to change into new types of organizations such as Kibata and
other executions teams (NGO sta, Feb. 21, 2014).
A positive aspect of the ban, highlighted by Scambary, is that members are
prohibited to wear their uniforms that had provoked and led to ghts in the past
(Bolitho 2013). Reportedly they still wear their uniforms on certain occasions,
and especially in the rural areas it can be observed that youths wear t-shirts or
necklaces with symbols that clearly indicate their affiliation. And it is reported
that many members still participate in trainings, which are taking place at night
in hidden places (church member, Feb. 20, 2014; NGO leader, Oct. 9, 2014; Suara
Timor Lorosae 2014b).
Although the government decided to close them, there are still conflicts. In some
places they meet in the night, sometimes controlled by the police, sometimes in a
small village where the police don’t know. Some martial arts members know about the
law, but they continue. One factor is that they think it is not fair for them to be closed
and discriminated [against] and thats why they continue. (NGO sta, Feb. 18, 2014)
Janina Pawelz
Additionally, some groups have transferred their martial arts activities to
other places, such as the Oecussi enclave, to avoid prosecution, hence expanding
their geographic reach and their level of sophistication (NGO leader, Oct. 9,
2014). Since the ban prohibits all martial arts activity in Timor-Leste, trainings
and also the belt exams to attain full membership take place in Indonesia. In
late 2014 the Timorese police caught hundreds of members of PSHT at the
Indonesian border who were accused of “hasai sabuk” (going to take the exam)
(Suara Timor Lorosae 2014a).
Wherever Timorese people live, martial arts groups also exist there! So the
government thinks “ok, let’s ban it.” But now they are still hiding. e training is in a
hidden place and sometimes they cross the border to have their exams in Indonesia,
and Indonesia accepts it! For the sake of the future time bomb, they accept it! (NGO
leader, Oct. 9, 2014)
Finding 3: Failing to Recognize Positive Aspects of Martial Arts Groups
By banning PSHT, Kera Sakti, and KORK the government failed to use existing
structures that could contribute to building peace in the country. is includes
the tight network structure and the immense outreach of these groups to the
remotest areas which could enhance youths social participation. On the one hand,
there is a lack of outreach to rural youth and few options for youth to participate
in society or develop good citizenship by getting involved in organizational
structures. On the other hand, the consistent, well-developed structure of martial
arts groups has been illegalized. In regard to peacebuilding, youth participation
plays an important role (Goldstone 1991). According to interview respondents,
the capacity of martial arts groups, with their positive curricula for their students,
has been overlooked. Internally, all martial arts groups deploy codes of conduct
and ethical discipline guidelines, including the value of nonviolence. For instance,
members of PSHT used to meet three times a week to train and study their
doctrine, which included aspects of civic education (PSHT leader, Dec. 8, 2014).
Though there is an apparent lack of research on the curricula of these groups,
there is the option of consulting the leaders and integrating nonviolent conict
management into their sports curricula (NGO staff, Feb. 21, 2014). This could
include ensuring that their practices are those of a sporting organization and
investing in a trained leadership that is capable of promoting positive values and
Besides sports trainings the groups also support an internal network of
mutual assistance. is includes, for instance, helping when someone gets sick,
practical support for building a house, and financial support for weddings or
funerals, and community projects (Kera Sakti leader, Oct. 25, 2014; PSHT leader,
Dec. 8, 2014). This nationwide network, reaching across families, hamlets,
districts, ethnic groups, and language barriers, appears to be a true denition of
Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste
brotherhood, creating the sense of a large family and identity for members.
Although the inclusion of youth is of high importance in regard to
peacebuilding, especially in post-war societies, the meaningful participation
of youth in Timor-Leste is still not evident. Although elections are generally
regarded as free and fair (Binsbergen et al. 2012), formal channels for voicing
public opinion are limited. Outside of election periods, decision making and
political and civic engagement seem to be limited to Dili, as “the period following
elections reveals a politically disengaged public, which allegedly provides the elite
with the opportunity to undertake a top-down approach …” (CEPAD/Interpeace
2012, 23). Data on youth participation reects this point: e majority of youth
(83%) voted in the 2012 election, but few young people were politically active
aer the election period. Of the young persons who were surveyed (by Search for
Common Ground), 75% of male and 68% of female respondents claimed to be
active” or “very active” in the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, but
only 20% of all respondents (both male and female) continued to be politically
active after the elections.
In the past decade youth activism has declined due
to disillusionment among youth, prompting Search for Common Ground to
conclude that they “must continually seek new ways to keep youth engaged
(Search for Common Ground 2012, 23). With the banning of these martial arts
groups, the existing structure to reach out to these youth has been lost. e divide
between Dili and the district capitals, and between the district centers and the
mountainous areas (foho) remains distinct, and so it is a major challenge to reach
out to the youth living in rural areas.
In Dili there is much to do, but in the foho, what do you do? Young people still have
energy, but there is nothing to do. Martial arts is there. ats why they join them!
If the state [does] not provide options, then martial arts is a good answer to the
question. Now the groups are shut down, its the last option for the young people that
is gone. (NGO sta, Feb. 21, 2014)
Martial arts groups have a nationwide reach with branches down to
the district and village levels. For instance, PSHT is highly organized and
hierarchically structured. On the top is the national president, followed by
the second highest position, the secretary general. Each district has a district
coordinator, followed by sub-district coordinators. e sub-districts are divided
into rantings, the smallest unit, headed by the ranting coordinator (PSHT
member, Oct. 13, 2014). Local leaders and the police used to work together
with the leaders of the martial arts groups to discuss community problems and
identify criminals. According to my interview respondents, this changed aer the
groups were banned as leaders refused to assist since they “dont exist anymore
(PSHT leaders, Nov. 10, 2014; Dec. 8, 2014).
In the case of Timor-Leste, martial arts groups could compensate for
Janina Pawelz
governance shortcomings and also create social space and social networks among
citizens; they could also provide services. Similar groups commonly emerge in
weak states where public or private institutions fail to provide channels for civic
and political participation (Kassimir and Flanagan 2010). is also accords with
Hagedorns argument that violence-prone groups are social actors within poor
communities with weak mechanisms of social control. He also pinpoints the crux
of the matter: Violence-prone groups are more than a crime problem and they
cannot be easily destroyed by suppression or repression, or eliminated by force
(Hagedorn 2005, 163-164). Nevertheless, as elaborated by Nordås and Davenport
(2013), repression is a common response of governments who feel threatened by
their youthful population.
Martial arts groups are a common kind of collective in Timor-Leste, with a
nationwide reach and tens of thousands of members. Due to their frequent
involvement in violent clashes, the government decided to ban three of the major
groups in 2013. While the objective of this action was to restore public order and
social harmony, it failed to address important aspects of the situation. ree main
ndings based on interviews are that (1) the root causes of violence are complex
and are not addressed by the ban, allowing for a continuation of violence; (2) new
problems emerge as people are drawn into illegality; and (3) positive aspects of
these groups are neglected and the exclusion of youth is deepened as the potential
to reach out to rural youth is lost. e regulation banning the three martial arts
groups is not an eective measure to build peace in the long term.
In the short term, the ban contributed to a decline of violent clashes and
created a superficial atmosphere of peace in the hot spot bairros (NGO staff,
Nov. 31, 2014). The data collected by Belun supports this: Of 1,356 monitored
incidents of violence, from February 2012 to September 2013, only 22 were
reported to be related to martial arts (Belun 2014, 5). A reason for the decline
of violent incidents related to martial arts is that members no longer wear their
uniforms or symbols that triggered clashes in the past. Leaders of the banned
martial arts groups also ordered their members to stay calm and to obey the
regulation in hope that the ban will be lifted in the future if they refrain from
violence (PSHT leader, Nov. 1, 2014; IKS leader, Oct. 25, 2014). But Beluns data
also show that the numbers of reported incidents of youth violence (not related to
martial arts) went up while martial arts violence decreased. e reason could be
a simple data collection problem: Conict could now be labeled simply as ghts
between youth and not martial arts groups since, according to the regulation,
those three martial arts groups do not exist anymore (Kera Sakti member, Oct.13,
Security, Violence, and Outlawed Martial Arts Groups in Timor-Leste
In the long term, lasting peace will not be achieved by banning these groups.
The effectiveness of the regulation is not very visible as members continue
to practice and recruit new members, and prosecution of violations is not
consistent. Retrospectively, measures that have proven to be eective in reducing
militancy and violent behavior of violence-prone groups include, for instance,
the strategy of “cash, contracts, and cooptation.” This illiberal peacebuilding
strategy of “buying peace” is unconventional and not awless, but it has proven
to be an eective measure in Timor-Leste. Leaders of potentially violent groups
have received cash payments, for instance, covered as “research grants” (political
leader, Sept. 26, 2014); or they have received government contracts to carry out
infrastructure projects, which provide employment for many martial arts group
members (NGO sta, Dec. 5, 2014). Leaders are easily coopted by oering them
prestigious positions. ese positions range from ministers, state secretaries, and
employees in ministries to high positions in the police command structure or
in the foreign service (NGO sta, Dec. 5, 2014; political leader, Sept. 26, 2014).
The International Crisis Group explains that “the increasingly wealthy state
has bought o the threat once posed by most dissidents with an expensive cash
benets scheme and succeeded in engaging most veterans’ voices in mainstream
politics” (International Crisis Group 2011, 1). In 2008 the government began to
implement cash transfer programs directed at veterans, who are organized in
large groups and pose a potential threat of violence. It was a pragmatic decision
to “buy peace” aer the 2006 crisis, which can work successfully unless the oil (the
nancial basis for “buying peace”) runs out or frustrated members of violence-
prone groups, who haven’t profited from the cash schemes, contracts or high
positions, reorganize into new, potentially violent, groups (NGO staff, Oct. 9,
From a broader perspective, Timor-Leste has achieved much in only 12
years of independence. Building peace in a post-war country is a balancing act
among several issues, including dealing directly with youth concerns, but also
establishing eective government institutions, facilitating free and fair elections,
strengthening the economy and eradicating poverty, while investing in the health
and education of its people. So far the resilience of the Timorese people has been
an underestimated factor, which raises hope for the future.
1. All interviews were conducted in Timor-Leste by the author in 2014. Names of the
respondents are omitted to preserve condentiality.
2. Based on self-assessment of survey respondents: “How do you rate your level of
participation in the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections?” very active; active;
passive; very passive; or, can’t say. To assess the post-election political activity, survey
Janina Pawelz
respondents were asked: “In addition to the elections, are you currently involved in
political and/or leadership activities?” Survey conducted by Search for Common Ground
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Janina Pawelz is currently a doctoral student at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area
Studies in Hamburg, Germany. Her research interests are violence-prone groups, gangs, non-state
Janina Pawelz
actors, youth, youth violence, and political participation in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. E-mail:
Full-text available
Liberal missteps have paved the way for the local turn in post-conflict peacebuilding. However, localized peacebuilding does not always produce peaceful outcomes. Several scholars have previously demonstrated that unresolved tensions from international-local encounters result in a negative hybrid peace in which political and social hierarchies are preserved and conflict and violence persist. To add to existing analyses on the local turn in peacebuilding, this article analyzes some of the causes and consequences of negative hybrid peace using the case of Timor-Leste. Exclusive and superficial local involvement, political cleavages within the local leadership, and unresolved tensions from international-local encounters were roadblocks in Timor-Leste's post-conflict peacebuilding. These characteristics prelude a return to a status quo dominated by the local elite and plagued with governance and socioeconomic issues.
International organisations, the national government and civil society alike have identified youth as a potential threat to the stability of the young state of Timor-Leste over the last decade. In this article, I ask how these actors define the danger of youth and what reasons they identify for the potential threat of young citizens for the society and state. Guided by a theoretical framework of Critical Security and Development Studies, I argue that while political manipulation as reason for youth violence was a prominent part of the security discourse in the years after the crisis in 2006, the discourse on the danger of youth in very recent international and national documents has been depoliticised. Despite decreasing numbers of youth-related violence, the threat construction has not vanished; rather, the language on youth has been adapted to the existing international discourse on violent youth as a threat to successful development. In this way, international and national actors have sustained the image of a society in need of management.
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Das Jahr 2012 ist ein wichtiges Jahr für Asiens jüngste Demokratie. Timor-Leste feierte den 10. Jahrestag seiner Unabhängigkeit und wählte zum dritten Mal einen neuen Präsidenten und ein neues Parlament. Die Wahlen waren auch eine Bewährungsprobe für den Sicherheitssektor.
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It is generally acknowledged that large youth cohorts or “youth bulges” make countries more susceptible to antistate political violence. Thus, we assume that governments are forewarned about the political demographic threat that a youth bulge represents to the status quo and will attempt to preempt behavioral challenges by engaging in repression. A statistical analysis of the relationship between youth bulges and state repression from 1976 to 2000 confirms our expectation. Controlling for factors known to be associated with coercive state action, we find that governments facing a youth bulge are more repressive than other states. This relationship holds when controlling for, and running interactions with, levels of actual protest behavior. Youth bulges and other elements that may matter for preemptive state strategies should therefore be included in future empirical models of state repression.
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The American study of gangs can no longer start and stop with local conditions but today must also be rooted in a global context. Studying gangs is important because of unprecedented world urbanization, the retreat of the state under the pressure of neoliberal policies, the strengthening of cultural resistance identities, including fundamentalist religion, nationalism, and hip-hop culture, the valorization of some urban spaces and marginalization of others, and the institutionalization of gangs in some cities across the world.
The 2006–2007 communal conflict in East Timor was starkly revealing of the fragility of national identity and also of the existence of deep-seated social tensions. These tensions were embodied by a wide range of warring social groups such as gangs, veterans groups and martial arts groups. A number of recent analyses have alluded to the political and ethnic nature of both the conflict and these groups. However, the manner in which all these groups emerged and interacted at different stages of the conflict did not always conform to static political and ethnic allegiances. This paper examines the internal dynamics of these groups' interactions; and how these groups prioritised often conflicting political, ethnic and social identities at different times during this two-year period. It argues that to frame more effective security and development responses and more effectively predict future conflict, we must first comprehend the complex, multi-layered nature of contemporary communal conflict in East Timor.
Combatting Martial Arts Violence in Timor-Leste
  • Belun
Belun. 2014a. Combatting Martial Arts Violence in Timor-Leste. Dili: Belun.
Dynamics of Martial Arts related Conflict and Violence in Timor-Leste
  • Belun
Belun. 2014b. Dynamics of Martial Arts related Conflict and Violence in Timor-Leste. Research Report. (accessed December 3, 2014).