In the face of recent fighting involving young people in Dili, Baucau and other Districts , the government must explicitly address the seemingly endless violence among Timorese youth. Over the past decade, youth violence has regularly caused injuries and deaths. In addition to occurring throughout Timor-Leste, this fighting has even spread to overseas Timorese communities in Indonesia and Europe. Simply banning troublesome youth groups will fail to resolve this deep-rooted issue. Instead, the government must formulate a specific youth policy that improves education and creates new employment opportunities.
The incessant conflict among young people largely results from the failure of successive post-independence governments to prioritize education. For example, although most government jobs require English or Portuguese language skills, the education system has consistently failed to equip Timorese youth with these crucial foreign language capacities. Because the education system does not prepare young people to compete in the jobs market, they have no motivation to study. Martial Arts Groups (MAGs) and other criminal organizations take advantage of this disillusionment to expand their membership.
The development process in Timor-Leste has consistently excluded young people, creating an atmosphere of frustration that erupts in skirmishes between gangs. There are no political programs aimed at training youth to successfully tend farms and gardens. The government’s neglect of the agricultural sector means that almost all the job creation in Timor-Leste has occurred in Dili. Inevitably, this over-centralization means that many unemployed young people migrate from the districts to the capital, only to find that jobs are still relatively scarce. Seeing Chinese immigrants successfully start shops in suburbs and villages throughout Timor-Leste, these young people feel there is no room for them in the economy. Far from their families and still unemployed, many young people feel attracted to gang membership and its sense of belonging.
The lack of employment opportunities in Timor-Leste has led many young people to move to Korea and Europe, particularly Portugal, the UK, and Ireland. For years now, a large line has stretched outside the Portuguese Embassy in Dili every day, composed of Timorese people seeking the documents that will allow them to move overseas. The high emigration rate testifies to the lack of opportunities within Timor-Leste.
Despite these formidable challenges, no government has promulgated a clear policy for youth since Timor-Leste’s independence. Every time violence occurs between young people, the government responds by banning the groups it deems problematic. This reactionary attitude fails to address the real causes of the incessant gang violence in this country. The government must tackle these underlying problems and provide young people with alternatives to the gangs that have caused so much needless bloodshed.
Currently, young people in Timor-Leste feel neglected by their nation’s elites. Because they do not participate in the development process, they feel like foreigners in their own country. With no sense of ownership, young people’s frustration expresses itself in futile bouts of violence.
Therefore, FM recommends that:
1) The government should formulate a clear policy for youth. Such a policy should take an integrated approach, encompassing education, arts/sports, and vocational training.
2) The government should reform the education system to make it more market-oriented. In particular, the education should endow Timorese youth with better English and Portuguese language skills. This training will allow them to promptly find employment after graduating.
3) The government should legalize Martial Arts Groups (MAGs) and regulate them. Banning the groups only forces them underground. By allowing them to meet openly, the government will have a better chance at monitoring these organizations’ leaders and channeling young people’s energy towards legal, productive purposes.
4) The government should use these regulated MAGs to attract tourism. By focusing on building skills instead of criminality, the MAGs can become an asset for Timor-Leste’s economy. The organizations will then provide their members with a steady income in addition to a sense of belonging. Young people need sports through which to express their energy. By channeling these energies towards the development of national and international tourism, Timor-Leste’s government can foster the active participation of young people in society.