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Activism and Aid

Chapter Five


Large scale international interventions can create a differential in the well-being of the rural and urban communities, reflecting where international funds flow and work opportunities are concentrated. Dili has become a magnet for young people seeking alternatives to the hard life of a subsistence farmer. Young school leavers have flocked to the bright lights of the city for a ‘modern’ lifestyle but many have become unemployed. Causes of the political crisis which broke out in 2006, the vulnerability of youth to being attracted into gangs driven by disaffected groups and civil society engagement are discussed.

Youth Migration for Work

Ordinary rural families had access to education for the first time under the Indonesian regime, so young graduates were often proudly the first educated members of their families. On completing primary school, rural children typically had to leave home to attend pre-secondary school. If families did not have relatives near the school other arrangements were made. Some students started living independently at the age of thirteen, building a house in the district town with their village peers. At this early age they looked after themselves, including handling shopping, cooking and firewood collection, with the help of money they received each week when their parents came to the Saturday market to sell farm produce.1 Children studying away from home could thus have a high degree of independence, or be living with and dependent on distant family members.

In Timor-Leste, there are high expectations amongst those who have attended school with the idea of ‘employment’ strongly linked to working in a government office. The government service employs half the number of staff as during the Indonesian administration, but the number of school leavers seeking jobs has escalated. There is an expectation by youth and their parents that education will provide a better life for their children than the marginal subsistence of previous generations. School fees are paid in expectation of a return, for example that their child will recompense this by bringing an income into the family. Some rural parents have demanded that their educated children bring money into the family from paid work, not realising that their children’s level of education is minimal and work is scarce.2 In the rural areas there are few formal employment opportunities available, while agricultural work and other forms of casual paid work are often excluded from people’s concept of being employed (Ostergaard 2005:28). Youth migration to the towns also has resulted in some rural communities suffering from lack of labour for farming (Wigglesworth 2007).

In Timor-Leste, each year about 17,000 young people enter the labour force.3 In 2010 the Timorese economy was only able to provide approximately 400 new jobs in the private sector (RDTL 2011:111). Driving taxis or running minibuses is a major income generation activity for young Timorese with few skills, but it is not considered exactly ‘employment’ by youth, but as temporary, transitional work whilst awaiting the desired office job.4 This experience is not unique to Timor-Leste, but studies have shown that a significant cause of conflict amongst youth is their unmet and unrealistic aspirations for white collar work when they leave school, in places as diverse as Sri Lanka and the Solomon Islands (Gunawardena 2002; AusAID 2003).

Dili draws in young people due to its large number of educational establishments, job opportunities and urban lifestyle. Transitioning from a rural lifestyle under the influence of customary leaders to that of the urban culture was fuelled by a desire for a different life, according to a youth leader:

Urban drift is because they want a better life. Land does not generate regular income. There are no secondary schools in the village so they move to the district or Dili. Some come for fun life in the city. Their expectation is that the city has opportunities to get money.5

Young Timorese who have moved to urban centres experience a very different environment to that they left behind in the rural areas. Local chiefs appointed in the urban bairros do not have the same authority over youth as traditional chiefs in rural areas:

Traditional leaders are important in decision making and cultural activities and young people have a close relation to traditional leaders, whereas political leaders are respected but distant. In urban areas political leaders become important and traditional practices are reduced.6

The consequence of this is that many youth seek alternative forms of social connection through peer-group activities, and seek an identity on the basis of kinship, political or martial arts affiliations, or fashion: ‘Most youth try to move away from tradition, they like fashion, to follow trends for clothes and haircuts, street life and an office job’.7

Youth who made the trip to Dili looking for work had often left junior or senior high school with limited skills. The Youth Survey found that although 75 percent of youth had attended nine years of schooling, only 66 percent were functionally literate (SSYS & UNICEF 2005). In 2006 it was estimated that youth made up a third of the population of Dili, including job seekers and school and university students (Curtain 2006). The National Youth Survey commissioned by SSYS and UNICEF surveyed 15–35 year olds across six of the thirteen districts of Timor-Leste as well high school and university students in Dili (Curtain and Taylor 2005).8 It found that nine out of ten rural youth believed they had an important role in their communities and that most under-thirty-five year olds believed their access to education and economic prospects, as well as quality of home dwelling and environmental health, were better than was the case for their parents. There was a sense of security from violence and crime and confidence that the government understood, and would act on, the problems facing youth (SSYS & UNICEF 2005). This study was produced just months prior to the crisis of 2006.

In 2006 in Timor-Leste, groups of young men with no gainful employment congregated in the streets, while young women were engaged in family domestic duties. ‘Since independence the situation has been very bad for youth … even youth who have skills do nothing so their skills will be lost,’9 complained a youth in a district town. Following the 2006 crisis there was much emphasis on establishing youth for work programs and on building youth skills by engagement in community construction projects. These activities did not resolve the shortage of employment opportunities in the long term for semi-literate and low skilled students annually discharged from educational establishments. Many school leavers continued to idle away their time in the streets. Public discourse focussed on levels of unemployment, often misreported and exaggerated, and failed to address the reality of different kinds of work that may be imagined or obtainable. The migration to Europe for work has increased, with youth with Portuguese grandparents benefiting from access to a European Union passport to get work in Britain or Ireland. A nationally orchestrated work program sent a thousand youths to work in South Korea in factories and construction work (RDTL 2006). In a country that is unlikely to provide many jobs in the formal sector for many years to come, the importance of youth involvement in the informal economy has been inadequately supported. Even the World Bank has now included subsistence farming and self-employment in its definition of jobs: ‘Jobs are performed by the employed. These are defined as people who produce goods and services for the market or for their own use’ (World Bank 2013:5).

Before the 2006 crisis in Dili, there was little attention given to youth, but following the crisis senior government officials were describing young men in language such as ‘hooligans’, ‘rampaging youth’, ‘thugs’, and ‘vandals’, demonising all youth even though only a minority become involved in such activities (Walsh 2006). As in Timor-Leste, youth in South Africa were on the frontline of the liberation struggle and it has been found that youth who lived through the conflict often slipped back into violent behaviour when, as a result of peace, they lost their former roles and were not supported (Marks 2001). After the ban on the ANC was lifted, the failure of political leadership to engage the youth movements in the new political environment led to an increasing incidence of unorganised violence and crime (Marks 2001). Similarly, insufficient attention was given to integrating young people from the armed struggle into society in Mozambique, where it is claimed their engagement in violent crime resulted from the high incidence of depression and aggressiveness of former young soldiers (Aird, Etraime et al. 2001). The media can be quick to highlight youth violence and crime, creating a negative image of youth, and the media in South Africa have been blamed for focussing on youth as a ‘lost generation’ or ‘the problem’ while failing to highlight the environment that created social divisions in the first instance (Seekings 1996).

Youth unemployment has been a perennial concern of governments worldwide in relation to issues of social control. This concern pivots on a fear that if a sense of achievement is absent for youth, they may seek self-validation through criminality or violence (Ansell 2005). Often, and arguably this is the case in Timor-Leste, it is only when youth become a ‘problem’ that are they are given due attention. Indeed much of the literature on youth is about youth violence and crime, with the study of youth being linked to the field of criminology, in contrast to the study of children which emerged from developmental psychology (Ansell 2005:15). In the Pacific the concentration of development aid to support the capacity of the central government left the countryside depleted of energetic, skilled and innovative individuals who could enable development in rural areas (Connell 2002:53). Meanwhile, youth disengagement in urban areas of New Guinea led to violent crime known as ‘raskolism’, with law and order responses are said to be contributing to the problem of violence. Some organisations are promoting traditional customs as a way to find solutions (Howley 2005; Regan 2005).

In Timor-Leste in 2006 youth leaders spoke of how youth prepared proposals for agricultural projects, music groups and sporting activities, but were not able to obtain funding for any of these initiatives and programs.10 Youth activists had been consulted by the government in the preparation of the national youth policy but they lamented the lack of activity or progress since that time. In Dili, one activist argued: ‘The government has not given any funds to youth groups to develop their own capacity. Only talk, no implementation, so young people feel marginalised’.11

The limited opportunities for young people resulted in many youth in rural towns ‘hanging around’, playing guitars, drinking or gambling. ‘Young people are just sitting in the road with no job’, lamented a twenty-four year old woman activist from Baucau in 2006,12 while another believed an increase in drinking, gambling and fighting by youth stemmed from a sense of loss and alienation:

When I work with young people more people say they have lost their future. They do not know how they can live for the future. The situation has reduced the human ability. They don’t know what their vision is. The public education is very low quality – when young people leave school they are not doing anything, only stay around the house and gather food from the farm. If they don’t go to the field they only stay drinking. It is a problem when they drink sometimes they start fighting and become violent.13

Drinking and drug use were mentioned as increasing social problems and attributed to the fact that there is not only unemployment, but also few other activities for youth. Drinking and drug use were said to have increased since 2005 when the Youth Social Analysis study recorded little use of drugs. By 2006 drugs were frequently used and it was believed by some that these had been brought into the country to fuel the violence.14 Unemployed young men became the front line of the crisis which started in February 2006 and continued to February 2008.

Expectations, Disappointments and Conflict

In 2006, there was a pervasive sentiment within the population that the expectation of freedom and development for which they had made sacrifices had not been realised. In the early years of independence, people’s experience was contrary to their expectation, with declining standards of living contributing to the alienation of many rural communities as poverty in the rural areas rose while power and resources were concentrated in Dili. The Ministry of Finance showed that poverty had increased between 2001 and 2007, causing a real decline in per-capita consumption by 26 percent, in spite of the huge volumes of aid which were flowing into the country (NDS 2008). The significant increase in poverty was explained by the stagnation of the non-oil economy between 2001 and 2007, which declined by 12 percent over this period.15

Amongst Timor-Leste’s largest ethno-linguistic group, the Mambai, there was a belief that justice should result in some redistribution of material and symbolic assets on the basis of contribution to the liberation struggle (Traube 2007). Traube argued that Mambai people living predominantly in the poorest highlands districts perceived that their sacrifices for the independence struggle had not been recognised or compensated following the establishment of the state. At independence former FALINTIL troops were demobilised and had to return to subsistence farming in order to survive. Many youth had sacrificed their opportunity for education to take up arms at a young age, and after independence some were resentful at returning to subsistence communities because they had never farmed before. An activist explained the sentiment:

Most of our generation are farmers now. They did not get a good education. These youth think government should create a job suitable for them, at least labour work. We involved in the clandestine movement expect something from government.16

An ex-FALINTIL guerrilla from the east of the country received just three years of Portuguese primary schooling before he joined the freedom fighters in 1976, dedicating twenty-three years of his life to the armed struggle. On demobilisation he received just US$350, after which he was on his own, looking for the means to survive.17 A former FALINTIL guerrilla leader, from the west of the country, complained: ‘The government is not looking to the people, especially veterans. Many people died and much suffering but the government doesn’t have any program to support them’.18 There have been targeted programs to support ex-freedom fighters. For instance the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) had a substantial program of support for veterans. But it only operated in the eastern districts. Other programs have also been selective in their targets, leaving many veterans unable to access support.19 By 2006, that the government had not given recognition to the contribution and suffering of the resistance fighters, or delivered material improvement to their lives, became a major source of bitterness, particularly with plentiful resources clearly visible in the capital.

Disenfranchisement resulted because the independent government failed to deliver benefits to the population in the form of improved health, education and support to farmers. This was expected as a result of the government working on their behalf, as opposed to the former Indonesian and Portuguese regimes. People perceived government actions as inimical to their interests when the effects of reduced support in agriculture and declining opportunities for marketing of agricultural produce started to be felt. There were criticisms that the government did not consult the people or listen to the concerns and needs of Timorese citizens.20 In 2005 a three-week long demonstration initiated by the Catholic Church resulted in the country being almost brought to a standstill and the first call for the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, to resign. A former military adviser believed the role of veterans in the country ‘dominates the community’s political equation from the village to the capital’ (Rees 2003:1).

In February 2006, 591 soldiers from the western districts had deserted their barracks in protest at perceived discrimination against westerners within the military and were sacked by Taur Matan Ruak, Commander of the armed forces (F-FDTL). The sacked soldiers represented almost the entire contingent of soldiers from the western districts, who accused senior officers of F-FDTL of claiming that the Timorese from eastern districts (Lorosa’e) were responsible for winning the liberation struggle, implying westerners were pro-integrationists, and overlooking westerners for promotion, amongst other concerns.21 President Gusmão returned from an overseas trip to make a televised address in which he acknowledged the injustice of the decision and the existence of east–west discrimination in the military. He also declared that he would not reverse the decision.22 That night the first acts of communal violence broke out, resulting from clashes between Lorosa’e (eastern) and Loromuno (western) youth gangs. Within days, youths were involved in widespread looting and burning of houses in Dili. According to Timorese activists, by legitimising the grievances of ‘westerners’ the President’s speech had provoked attacks on ‘easterners’. Within a few days, seventeen homes had been burned and easterners were fleeing the city (International Crisis Group 2006:8).

The crisis escalated when, on 23 May, the army (FALINTIL-Forcas de Defensa de Timor-Leste, F-FDTL) and police force (Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste, PNTL) turned on each other. Foreign troops were called in to restore order. Violence in the streets, mostly perpetrated by gangs of young men, identified as being from the east (Lorosa’e) or the west (Loromuno) continued during 2006 and into 2007. The youth denied responsibility, blaming the ‘ema bo’ot’ (‘big people’, or leaders) for their actions and some claimed to have been enticed with money (Scambary 2006; Grove N et al. 2007).

The armed forces – F-FDTL – are historically linked with FRETILIN and the resistance fighters, while the PNTL, directed by the Ministry of the Interior, was formed by UNTAET, with many police officers from the western districts who had previously served the Indonesian administration. The new head of the police force (PNTL) was a police officer during the Indonesian administration. UNTAET vetted and rehired any police who had worked for the Indonesian government even though they were locally perceived as pro-integrationists. Significant donor resources supported the development of the police force, including through training of police officers provided by the Australian Federal Police and Australian aid.23 International donors were not able to provide ‘development aid’ to F-FDTL because military assistance is excluded from the OECD definition of development assistance. Only 650 of the former resistance fighters were recruited into the 1500 strong F-FDTL, thereby excluding the majority of FALINTIL guerrillas, heroes of the liberation struggle (Rees 2003; Peake 2013). This simple beginning escalated into a political and military crisis that brought the country to its knees for two years. In June 2006 Alkatiri was forced to step down as Prime Minister, to be replaced by Jose Ramos Horta until national elections were held in 2007. According to Scambary, expectations of the situation stabilising as a result of Prime Minister Alkatiri’s resignation were dashed as new phases of violence developed, involving a new set of actors (Scambary 2007). While the first phase of violence had involved clashes between the security forces and anti-government demonstrations, the second phase involved protracted street brawls between ethnically based groups, and a third phase evolved through conflicts between former clandestine cells and martial arts groups (Scambary 2007).

By July 2006 half the population of Dili was living in refugee camps. This was a major social crisis requiring a humanitarian response by development agencies. The crisis continued into mid-2007, paralysing or reversing many of the development gains of previous years. In the April 2007 elections Jose Ramos Horta was elected as President, with the Parliamentary elections in June resulting in Xanana Gusmão becoming Prime Minister.24 The Gusmão government took a high spending approach, benefitting from the substantial oil revenues that began flowing in 2005 and which enabled a massive increase in the national budget to resource programs aimed at resolving problems created by the crisis, including providing pensions to the veterans.25

The hostilities between east and west are worth examining here, as they created real fears of the disintegration of Timor-Leste as a united country.26 There is no single ethnic divide between the east and west, rather there are multiple linguistic groups with some distinct characteristics. The Timorese languages are largely of Austro-Malay roots, although three language groups have Papuan roots (Makassae and Fataluku in the east, and Bunak in the west). The Portuguese colonisers played on the differences between language groups, naming those in the longer pacified western districts the kaladi or ‘quiet ones’, while the more distant and warrior-like easterners were termed firaku or ‘those that turn their back on you’ (Carey 2007). The empirical histories of struggle by the Timorese against Portuguese rule, however, suggest these namings did not always correspond to the reality. According to Freitas, during the colonial period most revolts against the Portuguese authorities took place in the west of East Timor, while people from the eastern kingdoms that had accepted Portuguese rule were recruited to fight alongside Portuguese troops to put down uprisings in the west (Freitas 1994:10). Nevertheless, a ‘western’ Timorese activist explained that as school students they were encouraged to choose an easterner (a fighter) when they had to select their sports team captain, highlighting the common perception of the fiercer characteristics of the easterners.27

A Timorese academic explained that prior to 2006, the term Loromuno was generally used to refer to people from Indonesian West Timor. However, back in 1975 Hill made reference to these terms, noting that ‘one of the variations of tribalism is the division of the population in Loro Muno and Loro Sa’e, into Kaladis and Firakus … and the belief that some groups are superior to others’ (Hill 2002:77). The senior officers of FALANTIL, and more recently F-FDTL, were from the east. As the majority of the militia groups were based in the west, close to the border with Indonesia, senior officers have indiscriminately accused Loromuno members of being prointegrationist. The sense of superiority of senior Lorosa’e military officers is evidenced by their claim that the Lorosa’e alone were responsible for winning the liberation struggle (see Peake 2013:67).

As well, rivalry between the Makassae from the east and the Bunak from the west over market supremacy dates back to an influx of easterners into the capital after World War Two,28 and these tensions resumed after further population displacement caused another influx into Dili in 1999 (Babo-Soares 2003). The Bunak are a relatively small language group, but the Makassae,29 who became major players in Dili markets, are one of the largest language groups and are perceived as a threat by some Dili market stall holders.30

Behind this issue of ethnicity, a primary cause of violence in both Dili and the districts was family land and property disputes, many dating back to overlapping claims from Portuguese or Indonesian times (Brady and Timberman 2006). Unresolved land ownership disputes sometimes arose from pro and anti-integration sentiment and population movements in 1999 or were linked to political divisions which started in 1975. Within Timor-Leste successive waves of people were displaced and forced to move as a result of armed conflict and Indonesian policies of occupation. There was forcible removal of villages away from FRETILIN occupied mountains, large tracts of land in the coastal plains were allocated to Indonesian transmigrants and, in 1999, huge displacement resulted from the violence unleashed by the Indonesian backed militia. Land ownership is therefore a highly contentious issue, with titles from Portuguese and Indonesian periods each having validity. Many landowners who fled after 1975 have returned to claim their property, now home to other families. And numerous families arrived in Dili to escape violence in 1999 and did not leave again. Houses vacated by the departing Indonesians were reoccupied. Numerous ownership claims have been lodged, but the judicial system has as yet not responded to these claims. With thousands of land and property ownership claims pending over many years, it is argued that most property destruction was aimed at those who had moved into homes of others in the post-1999 era. Lists of properties occupied since 1999 were sometimes obtained from hamlet heads to target them more efficiently (McWilliam 2007:41). The media reported that youth were found with wads of money after being paid to burn specific houses.31 In the 2006 crisis the burning of houses to dislodge the occupants appears to have been a specific action designed to forcibly resolve property issues. Violence in the streets ultimately caused half the population of Dili to retreat to makeshift refugee camps scattered around the capital.

Masculinity, Groups and Gangs

Activists claimed lack of direction and orientation of young men as a factor in the crisis: ‘Youth became involved only after things had happened because there had been no direction to guide them. They are looking for identity and not thinking of the impact on the community’32. Many youth involved in the violence claimed they were manipulated, that leaders had distributed weapons and stirred up hatred with divisive words about East and West. Activists also commented on the responsibility of the leadership for the youth violence:

Youth with low education cannot analyse well the positive and negative side. It is easy to manipulate them as they easily follow people who want to make violence.33 Young people do not understand politics. Political leaders are behind young people’s actions.34

INGO staff working with youth in the IDP camps reported that young men blamed the violence on ‘ema bot’ (big people) even though they themselves committed the violent acts. Some were enticed with money: ‘Leaders gave money to young people. For money people will do anything, even kill’ said one youth (Grove N et al. 2007:9). Gang members gained courage and reputedly money to undertake acts of violence that they had not done before. On the other hand, many youths engaged in violence without financial reward due to their frustration of being unemployed: ‘Young people are concerned about what Ema Bot are saying. They are only involved in violence because they are made to. They are not paid. They are involved in violence to express their frustration and disappointment’.35

The explosive mix of poorly educated unemployed male youth within a highly volatile politicised environment resulted in youth gangs obeying leaders who ‘made’ them carry out violent acts. Research found that youth blamed their leaders, often former leaders of the resistance movement (Scambary 2006), while few youth would admit to being responsible for the violence.36 Some young men directly blamed then President Gusmão for the start of the crisis: ‘The careless words of leaders incited violence; that accusations of not having fought for independence forced people to fight and defend their name and their self-worth’ (Grove N et al. 2007:3).

Youth admitted they had been used by other organisations, some political parties. ‘It is the culture of “Maun Bo’ot” (big brother). If “Maun Bo’ot” said to do something, after a few beers they can do anything’, reported a youth researcher.37 The Baucau District Administrator reflected that a ‘culture of violence’ existed because many youth growing up during the struggle lacked nurturing and ‘learnt to burn houses’ and engage in anti-social behaviour.38 In addition to the background of violence in their lives, the culture encourages a manly response: ‘Parents give “carinho” (affection) to girls but not to boys’.39 The lived experiences of many youth contributed to social dislocation and the willingness to engage in violence. That the leaders of youth gangs engaged in looting and burning across Dili is perhaps an indication of youth’s continued uncritical acceptance of authority. In the words of a Timorese academic: ‘the culture of youth is to respect a leader even if they are wrong’.40

Much of the 2006 violence resulted from family disputes dating back to 1975. Political or resistance leaders drew on the resentment and disappointment of young people to carry out their family battles and political aspirations. Some groups were involved in extortion rackets and criminal gangs, others had affiliations to former militia groups while others were linked to senior members of government (Scambary 2006). Politicisation of the conflict is not attributed to political parties, rather it was driven by community-level rivalries: ‘If political manipulation did occur, it was most likely at the village or neighbourhood level and individual and fraternal linkages rather than strategic campaigns organised and executed nationally’ (Arnold 2009:387).

The perpetrators of youth violence were largely from the ‘millennium generation’ brought up in the 1990s, described as ‘a generation detached from the solidarity experiences of Timor-Leste’s resistance era’ (Arnold 2009:380). It is said that retribution for past wrongs can be carried across four generations within Timorese society, with members having responsibility to uphold the honour of their families in feuds with others. In Timor-Leste, hostilities between families were fuelled by Indonesian recruitment of Timorese youth to ninja and gadapaksi groups to attack pro-independence groups. Thus Timorese social divisions have a long history. Historic patterns of group conflict have been part of Timor-Leste’s cultural and political landscape dating back to the Portuguese era but the majority of groups formed during the Indonesian occupation (Scambary 2013). Experiences in other post-conflict states indicate such groups re-emerge and remobilise at critical junctures of political and social change. In post-conflict South Africa, a study showed that endemic urban violence and crime that had been seen as a product of poverty and marginalisation was principally a result of historic rivalries (Kynoch 2005).

Analysis of the formation of groups and gangs in Timor-Leste has found that of some 300 groups and social movements in the post-conflict period these are:

predominantly male, span a wide range of ages and often transcend ethnolinguistic boundaries. Their hybrid nature and often overlapping memberships with other groups makes categorisation both difficult and contentious … Rooted in East Timorese cultural traditions and history, rather than being fringe elements alienated from society, they play an integral role within their communities as a means of voicing the demands, aspirations and identity of community members. (Scambary 2013)

These groups are complex and adaptable; they may fade with time and/or reshape their identities. They are a major source of engagement for Timorese male youth born after 1990. Many of these youth have been disengaged from the formal economy and national life since they left school.

Table 2 (p. 90) attempts to map these organisations, drawn principally from Ostergaard’s Youth Social Analysis and Scambary’s research on youth groups and gangs (Ostergaard 2005; Scambary 2006; Scambary 2013) as well as my own research. Youth groups described in chapter two that transitioned into NGOs and CBOs in the post-independence period can no longer be considered youth groups although their members may consider themselves youth leaders. In 2006 the depth of schism between different groups in the community was shocking, but what was not so obvious was that the elements of ‘discontentment’ changed over the succeeding two years. Distinct phases in the crisis evolved from the clashes between the security forces, to protracted street brawls between ethnically based groups, and finally to conflicts between former clandestine cells and martial arts groups.

During the 2006 crisis, according to a church youth worker, the clear identities of martial arts groups became conflated with east-west rivalries and political allegiances.41 Rivalry between martial arts organisations led to numerous incidents of violent conflict particularly in the latter part of the crisis. They have been an important source of social engagement for male youth since the Indonesian occupation with a membership strongly linked to the resistance (Scambary 2006). There are 15–20 different martial arts groups, some linked to the resistance movement and others established since independence. The membership of these groups is 20,000 registered and up to 90,000 when including unregistered members. Most are male and between 15–25 years, although the leadership is generally older (Ostergaard 2005; Scambary 2007; Scambary 2011). Young women comprised about 5 percent of the group membership. These groups offer not only physical training to the youth but a needed measure of sociality. They are accused though of promoting rivalry. Their leaders have been criticised for failing to provide a positive orientation or good leadership.42

Table 2: Major Groups Engaging Youth in Timor-Leste

Key: G75 – 1975 generation; GF – Gerasaun Foun; GM – Gerasaun Mileniu (youth)


The two largest martial arts groups, PSHT43 and KORK,44 are rivals who have been blamed for much violence. Both groups claimed to promote national unity and maintained that there are rules to abide by and that violence occurs because the members break the rules.45 Conflict was generally blamed on the ‘code’ of defending ‘brothers’ in the group, often related to personal or family issues, rather than intrinsic differences between the groups.46 ‘Brotherhood’ is translated into support for any member who has problems, according to a young female member, who was attracted to her martial arts group for the friendship bonds and sense of belonging.47 The National Police detective chief estimated that at least twelve East Timorese had been killed and more than 200 injured in the previous two years as a result of fighting among rival pencak silat clubs (an Indonesian form of martial arts).48 Prime Minister Gusmão tried to encourage these groups to operate peacefully, but the continuing deaths of martial arts group members led to these organisations being banned in July 2013.

Violent masculinities in Timor-Leste have been described as enactments that have the aim of reassuring the male himself and ‘his’ side while simultaneously intimidating the ‘other’ side into submission (Myrttinen 2005). Largely male international armed forces and UN uniformed police in large numbers further masculinised the social environment. The ‘political crisis’ of 2006 was dominated by armed conflict and expressions of violent masculinity, with women as notably absent from street violence and public displays of anger (Niner 2011)

Alfredo Reinado, commander of the F-FDTL military police, became an important symbol of violent masculinity. Reinado, together with seventeen of his men and four members of the police Rapid Intervention Unit (UIR), deserted their posts in April 2006 in opposition to the deployment of the F-FDTL against civilians. A westerner from Aileu, Reinado became a hero for young people, particularly the Mambai speaking westerners. Reinado opened fire on F-FDTL, killing a number of men,49 and evaded the Timorese authorities and Australian forces over the ensuing months. Many youths started to dress like him (Niner 2008). They were fugitives in the hills until Reinado was shot dead at the house of President Ramos Horta on 11 February 2008, an event that marked the end of the crisis after two years of conflict.

Parallels have been drawn with Boaventura’s many heroic escapes from the heavy hand of Portuguese authorities in earlier times, due to the limited reach or influence of the Portuguese in the mountain rugged areas (Sengstock 2008). Many believed that he had been endowed with the spirit of the ‘warrior king’ Dom Boaventura.50 Reinado was thus elevated into a cult figure, symbolising the heroic rebel fighting against an unjust state.

Civil Society Peace Building Activism

In 2006, all development agencies and NGOs turned their attention to responding to the humanitarian crisis, and tertiary educational establishments in Dili were closed for much of the year. While the new generation of school leavers became embroiled in the violence, the ‘young generation’ activists of the clandestine struggles were leading a peace campaign. The year 2006 was in some ways a defining moment for civil society, which engaged actively in peace-building activities. Activities to promote national unity were immediately organised by the NGO Forum, the umbrella organisation for Timorese civil society organisations. It set up a National Unity Committee to organise a public information campaign, set up reconciliation programs in the burgeoning camps of internally displaced people (IDPs) and monitor the emergency distribution program implemented by international agencies in the IDP camps. During the ethnic tensions, civil society activists from east and west worked together to promote peace and reconciliation. Banners were raised across the capital with slogans such as ‘Ema Ida, Nasaun Ida’ (‘One people, one Nation’), appealing for people to see themselves as one nation (Wigglesworth 2013a).

Large amounts of money were allocated to peace-building activities by the Timorese government and international agencies, but Timorese NGOs had difficulty in getting support for their activities. For instance NGOs had been promised funds by the government for their peace activities the funds failed to arrive, forcing activists to go into debt to complete the activity51 and exacting a response: ‘The government wants to centralise the peace process. They are not interested in the NGO contribution to peace’.52

Timorese activists were concerned that short-term solutions were being put in place, some of which benefited only certain people and therefore had the potential to further divide the community. For instance all IDPs received rice handouts but families that remained in their houses received nothing even though they were perhaps just as needy.53 Local NGOs wished to develop ongoing and sustainable programs working in the communities, but they felt that most money was being allocated to handouts and large consultations without follow up and ongoing support.54

Internally displaced people (IDP) camps had been set up for the escalating numbers of IDPs, reaching 150,000 in mid-2006. Management committees were appointed for each camp, coordinated by INGO representatives. Some international NGOs started to implement emergency projects directly in the IDP camps rather than enlist the support of their local NGO partners.55 No emergency funding was available to local NGOs; rather they were contracted to work under the INGOs. Activists were angry at this apparent return to a marginalised role for Timorese NGOs. As one expressed:

after the crisis the local organisations did not get much opportunity to be involved directly to prevent further violence and help the victims in terms of access to resources. It was a repeat of 1999–2000, in terms of distribution it was under INGOs. In spite of their increased experience by 2006, local NGOs were only permitted to work as subcontractors under the INGO’s name.56

Many IDP camps were still operating two years after the start of the crisis. This renewed ‘emergency’ funding enabled INGOs to set up peace building and conflict resolution programs in communities where they had not previously worked. These, it was claimed, often ran parallel to existing programs of local NGOs.

The security situation, moreover, made it impossible for many local NGOs to continue their development programs, so regular NGO activities were brought to a halt, either because staff were directly affected by the crisis or because the movement of people disrupted communities. Some were told that their grants were being suspended because normal program work could not proceed, leaving Timorese managers with an obligation to pay their staff but without funds to do so.57 INGO power over funding forced local NGOs to submit to donor demands making it difficult for local organisations to make any decision for themselves. Timorese activists thus felt unsupported both by the RDTL government and international donors that were doing little to support the NGOs’ own initiatives.

Timorese activists did play a significant part in the promotion of traditional forms of mediation during the 2006 crisis, which gained considerable credibility in conflict resolution efforts. Nahe biti (spreading the mat) ceremony depends on the judgements of the lian nain and the council of elders made up of male members of local elites. Elders sit together and discuss problems before coming to a common decision about the outcome (Trinidade and Bryant 2007). Nahe biti is ‘an evolving process that ultimately seeks to achieve a stable social order within society’ (Babo-Soares 2004). Thus a Timorese path was established that uses alternative models which harmonise with the traditional life of the people. Traditional processes are respected by the community, thus overcoming the legitimacy problems of elected representatives. Josh Trindade proposed a solution to the 2006 crisis which involved the traditional practice of juramento (binding oath) at national level and the construction of uma lulik (sacred houses) at national and district levels. In this, Trindade was proposing not only the use of traditional Timorese belief systems at community level, but also that Timorese political leaders should be brought into the process to resolve political conflicts at the topmost level of government.58


Many independence activists played a key role in the formation of new civil society organisations in after the Indonesians left. Jose Magno was a founder of the KSI which works in research and conflict management. Like ETSSC activists Natalino Gusmão Soares and Antero Bendito da Silva, he is now a lecturer at the National University.

Civil society has also promoted sustainable development using the customary practice of tara bandu, a Timorese resource management system.59 Environmental NGOs such as Fundasaun Haburas work with local communities to impose ritual prohibitions on the use of natural resources to protect the environment from activities which exploit natural resources or threaten endangered plant and animal life and has been described as

‘traditional ecological wisdom’.60 While this collaboration of NGOs with customary leaders and practices had started long before the crisis, national and international organisations started to recognise the value of these processes for conflict resolution and restoration of harmony.


Development in Timor-Leste was severely derailed by the political crisis which broke out in 2006 and continued into 2008. Its causes were complex, and actors many, fuelled by underlying resentment about the lack of improvement in the lives of the majority of the population living in poverty. The existence of historic rivalries between communities gave rise to the renewed leadership for settling old scores using the foot soldiers of unemployed and frustrated young men. Many youth blamed their leaders for the violence that they themselves perpetrated, including payback for past wrongs in inter-family feuds, that were a response to hierarchal power structures of groups and gangs in which youth operated. The reverence for Alfredo Reinado demonstrates that youth can be uncritical of strong, violent, masculine figureheads such as those that have been revered through Timorese history. Kinship relations and powerful leadership figures have been shown to have a strong influence on the actions Timorese youth, and while discourses about youth tended to see them as a ‘problem’ and the provision of formal work as a solution, the drivers of discontent were and are more complex.

Youth of the ‘millennium generation’ have gravitated to groups which offer them a sense of place, uncritically accepting leadership from kinship or patronage networks. Meanwhile the Gerasaun Foun activists have provided leadership to draw on ‘traditional’ local cultural practices to make peacebuilding and development interventions more relevant to local communities while promoting principles of equality and sustainability.

1     Interviews, Barros, Suai, 7 August 2006; Vicente, Suai, 7 August 2006.

2     Interview, Coordinator of District Youth Council, Suai, 4 August 2006.

3     Timor-Leste National Youth Employment Action Plan 2009, SEFOPE, Dili.

4     Interview with DIT Student Association leader, 8 September 2005.

5     Interview Samala Rua, Dili, 31 July 2006.

6     Interview Samala Rua, Dili, 31 July 2006.

7     Interview Lemos, Dili, 11 August 2006.

8     A random sample of twenty-five villages across six districts plus 300 young people from four high schools outside of Dili, four within Dili, and two universities, with thirty students from each institution incorporating equal numbers of males and females in a sample of 780 young people.

9     Youth art group leader, Manatuto, interview, Dili, 22 August 2006.

10   Interview, Coordinator District Youth Council, Suai, 4 August 2006.

11   Interview, Gusmão Soares, Dili, 29 July 2006.

12   Female leader of youth group, interview, Baucau, 18 August 2006.

13   Catholic youth group leader, interview, Baucau, 19 August 2006.

14   Interview with Youth Social Analysis research team member, 31 July 2006.

15   Press release on ‘Timor-Leste: Poverty in a Young Nation’ report launched 26 November 2008. The report is based on the Timor-Leste Standard of Living Study 2007.

16   Interview, Barreto, Suai, 8 August 2006.

17   Personal communication 17 August 2006. He could not name the organisation that provided support.

18   Interview with a former regional leader of FALINTIL, Suai, 8 August 2006. Although the term ‘veterans’ is in popular use, according to the Commission of the Combatants in the Resistance ‘Veteranos’ (veterans) refers to those who served in FALINTIL for the whole period 1975–1999, of whom there are only seventyfive persons. Other former freedom fighters are technically known as the ‘antigos combatants’ (former combatants) who fought with arms during some of that period. The ‘Quadros de resistencia’ (members of resistance organisations) includes civilians who supported the resistance, notably the youth organisations OJETIL, RENETIL, FITUN, OBJLATIL etc.

19   One example is Project RESPECT set up by UNDP to support social and economic reintegration of ex-combatants, widows and unemployed youth into civilian life. Project Respect was critiqued by NGO La’o Hamutuk for allocating only just over US$1 million to local activities in a US$13 million project (La’o Hamutuk 2004).

20   Interview, Barros, Suai, 7 August 2006.

21   Loromuno (from the land of the setting sun) and LoroSa’e (from the land of the rising sun) is the Tetum version of east and west). Senior military officials had dismissed the grievances presented to them, without a military tribunal, claiming that political opposition parties were behind the protest.

22   Speech of President Xanana Gusmão on 23 March 2006 at the Palace of Ashes, Dili. http:/,_Speech_Xanana_Gusm%C3%A3o,_23th_March_2006 (viewed 13 February 2007).

23   The Australia-East Timor Police Development Program, worth A$32 million, has trained over 800 staff within East Timor’s police service (, accessed 27 November 2008).

24   Xanana Gusmão had stepped down as President in order to form a separate party to contest FRETILIN in the national elections. During this period a third interim government was formed which ran from the April 2007 until the formation of a new government after the parliamentary elections on 30 June 2007. FRETILIN received the largest vote but lacked a clear majority. Agreement could not be reached on the leadership, resulting in a political deadlock until President Ramos Horta finally called on Xanana Gusmão to form government in a coalition with the minority parties. Gusmão became the Prime Minister of what is named the Fourth Constitutional Government in August 2007.

25   Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Timor Collides with its future’, The Age, Melbourne 22 November 2008.

26   For instance a Ten District Movement formed under the leadership of Major Tara. The ten of thirteen districts represent the westerners, but excluded the eastern districts Baucau, Viqueque and Los Palos (International Crisis Group 2006).

27   Personal communication, Martins, Dili, 15 August 2006.

28   Ranck suggests the influx into Dili took place in 1959. ‘Recent rural-urban migration to Dili, Portuguese Timor’. MA Thesis, 1977, Macquarie University.

29   The Makassae are principally from the Baucau district, and the Bunak are one of the two principle language groups in Covalima and also from Bobonaro district. According to the Timor-Leste Survey of Living Standards 2007, Mambai make up 24.6%, Tetum Praca 17.4%, Tetum Terik 6.3%, Makassae 11.7% and Bunak are 5.7% of the population (National Directorate of Statistics 2007). Interestingly Bunak is the only language of the Papuan group found in the west of the country.

30   Personal communication, Martins, Dili, 15 August 2006.

31   A Catholic priest stated that youth claim to receive $20 for throwing stones; $50 for burning a house and $100 for killing a person. He received this information in confessions of dozens of youths (Marianne Kearney, Courier Mail 9 October 2007).

32   Interview, Samala Rua, Dili, 31 July 2006.

33   Interview, de Carvalho, Dili, 25 August 2006.

34   Interview, Gusmão Soares, Dili, 29 July 2006.

35   Interview, Catholic Youth Coordinator, Dili, 15 August 2006.

36   Personal communication with James Scambary, 24 August 2006.

37   Interview with youth researcher 31 July 2006.

38   Interview District Administrator, Baucau, 17 August 2006.

39   Interview, Abrantes, Dili, 30 July 2006.

40   Interview, Director, Dili Institute of Technology, 6 September 2005.

41   Interview, Catholic Youth worker, Dili, 15 August 2006.

42   Interview, Coordinator District Youth Council, Suai 4 August 2006.

43   Persaudaraan Setia Hati Terate (PSHT – often shortened to SH): Lotus Faithful Heart Brotherhood.

44   Klibur Oan Rai Klaren, or the Association of People from the Centre (formed in Ainaro, where Mount Ramelau is perceived as the centre of Timor-Leste).

45   Interviews with Provincial leader of KORK, Suai, 6 August 2006 and Provincial leader of PSHT, Suai, 6 August 2006.

46   KORK male member interview, Suai, 6 August 2006.

47   PSHT female member interview, Suai, 6 August, 2006.


49   This clash was not foreseen but was captured on film (Personal communication with SBS reporter David O’Shea, Hotel Dili, August 2006). Details on

50   Reinado had only spent a few years of his childhood within the Timorese community. His traumatic childhood experiences at the hands of the Indonesian military have been described elsewhere (Niner 2008). Reinado sought to strengthen his credentials with the cultural power of Dom Boaventura, the liurai of Manufahi region, who united several kingdoms to participate in the last major uprising against the Portuguese in 1912. A ritual ceremony, presided over by Manufahi elders in 2007, reportedly endowed Reinado with the late Boaventura’s supernatural powers, shortly before he escaped an assault by the Australian International Stabilisation Force on his hideout in Same, capital of Manufahi district.

51   Personal communication, Lemos, Melbourne, 30 May 2008.

52   Personal communication, Magno, Melbourne, 2 November 2007.

53   Personal communication, Lemos, Melbourne, 30 May 2008.

54   Personal communication, Reis, Melbourne, 26 October 2007.

55   Personal communication, Reis, Melbourne, 26 October 2007.

56   Interview, Lemos, Dili, 11 August 2006.

57   Interview, Lemos, Dili, 11 August 2006.

58   Email from Josh Trindade sent 17/10/06 as an open letter to the Prime Minister and to the East Timorese people, entitled ‘An oath for the People of Timor: Strengthening unity, ending violence and cherishing culture through customary Timorese belief structures’. The proposal was not taken forward.

59   Interview, Haburas staff, Dili, 4 October 2005.

60   Demitrio do Amaral de Carvalho, founder and Director of Haburas, the first and only environmental NGO in Timor-Leste, winner of the Goldman prize 2006 (www.

Activism and Aid

   by Ann Wigglesworth