Recent incidents of youth violence, including a brutal fight between gangs of young men in Hudi-Laran last week, have once again drawn attention to the issue of Martial Arts Groups (MAGs) in Timor-Leste. For years, the Government’s response to MAGs has been enforcement-driven, relying on police to break up violence when it arises and to arrest youth offenders. However, police intervention is a passive response that addresses the symptoms rather than the root causes of violence. If the Government wants to keep MAGs under control,it must define and implement a clear and proactive social policy aimed at preventing youth violence at its source, not just responding to incidents.
Youth violence can be traced to three factors: low education, high unemployment, and a lack of alternative means of social association for young people. Young people who do not attend school and who have few job prospects are more likely to feel drawn to youth groups, which offer them a sense of belonging and purpose. However, in the absence of groups centered on activities such as political advocacy, sports or the arts, young people will naturally gravitate toward MAGs, which offer an outlet for their aggression. Moreover, because there are few avenues for formal and friendly athletic competition among MAGs, young people must direct their energies at one another in informal and often violent ways.
If the Government wishes to prevent youth violence, it must work through relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, and the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion, to tackle these issues. First, it must continue to promote high enrollment of youth in secondary school and higher education, including working with families to keep their children in school. It must also ensure that the education that young people are receiving is adequately preparing them for the challenge of finding work after graduation. This means updating the educational curriculum to ensure it matches Timor-Leste’s current and future needs.
Second, the Government must continue to promote employment among young people, including implementing job-training programs in fields such as construction, engineering, and tourism. The ultimate goal of such programs should be to give young people the skills to effectively manage projects often outsourced to foreign firms – something that they are not currently equipped to do. As long as there is a large youth population with few employment opportunities, Timor-Leste will continue to see gang-related violence, which could even escalate to the levels seen in 2006-2008.
Third, the Government should work with relevant ministries, NGOs, and civil society organizations (CSOs) to find alternative ways for young people to socialize with one another. Local youth groups like Hatutan and NGOs like Youth Off the Streets provide a model for a more productive form of youth social engagement. The Government should not only support these groups, but also help fund and create new groups, with the ultimate goal of maintaining a flourishing ecosystem of youth organizations in Timor-Leste.
Finally, it is worth noting that there is nothing inherently wrong with martial arts as a sport, and that MAGs could one day become the basis of a vibrant culture of athletic competition in Timor-Leste, similar to other countries in Southeast Asia. If the Government were to hold martial arts competitions, it would give young people a constructive outlet for their aggressive energies and would likely curb street violence. It could also give young people who cannot find work in other fields a potential way forward. These events could become an attraction for domestic and international tourism, helping Timor-Leste brand itself as an appealing destination.
Clearly, there is no single policy for preventing youth violence, but rather a number of overlapping policies that together confront deeper issues in Timor-Leste: a struggling education system, high unemployment, and a lack of support for civil society groups. Given the complexity of the issue, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) recommends that the Government define and publish a clear strategy for addressing youth violence. As it stands, the Government has no such strategy and instead relies on police action, which certainly comes too late in the process.
Moreover, FM urges politicians to end the current political gridlock, which impedes coordination among relevant ministries. If the Government is to effectively address the causes of youth violence, it must use the combined resources of various ministries working in conjunction. This will be impossible so long as certain positions remain unfilled and Parliament fails to devote adequate funding for normal ministry operations.
The problem of youth violence goes to the heart of Timor-Leste’s efforts to promote inclusive development and recover from conflict. The issue demands a far more systematic response from the Government than it currently receives.