Last week, Chief of State-Major General of the F-FDTL Lere Anan Timur called for military operations to combat Martial Arts Groups (MAGs). While MAG violence does pose a threat to public safety, military responses fail to address the root causes of the problem and could even do more harm than good. To understand why a military response won’t work, this blog looks at the underlying trends that have led to the rise of MAGs, the potential threats and opportunities posed by MAGs, and solutions to the issue of youth violence.
Country Risk Factors
MAGs must be understood in the context of several demographic, economic and political factors in Timor-Leste.
The first is Timor-Leste’s youth bulge. The country is one of the youngest in the world, with 70% of the population under the age of 30 and 50% under the age of 18. High birthrates mean that this trend is unlikely to slow down in the immediate future.
While a rising youth population can mean more dynamism and innovation for a country, it can be a problem if the economy is unable to absorb the new workers. This leads to the second factor: a lack of employment opportunities for Timorese youth. Timor-Leste suffers from remarkably high unemployment rates, with only one-quarter of the working age population finding work in the formal sector. Data suggests that employment is getting worse every year, especially for young people coming out of universities or vocational schools. For example, of the 8,600 young people who received vocational training in 2017, only about 800 went on to find jobs – less than 10%. Quite simply, there are not enough new jobs being created to meet the needs of the growing youth population. This is due in no small part to the government’s lack of investment in the non-oil economy.
The third factor is Timor-Leste’s inadequate education system. On the one hand, too many students continue to drop out of school at a young age, in some cases because families do not emphasize the importance of education. On the other hand, young people who do graduate from university or a vocational program often find that they do not have the necessary skills for the jobs that do exist. Non-Timorese workers with proper training are thus employed in positions that could have gone to local workers. A prime example is in the oil sector, where most of the jobs associated with the Tasi Mane project will go to technical experts from abroad, with only temporary construction jobs going to Timorese workers – though these, too, could go to foreigners. The problem is a poor quality education system that does not prepare students for the demands of the workforce.
Taken together, these trends result in a population of young people, who, without work or school to fill their days and with few prospects for the future, will naturally seek out other forms of social interaction, stimulation, self-worth, and meaning. MAGs thus fill a gap in society formed by lack of opportunities for youth. The appeal of MAGs is exacerbated by the fact that there are few alternative communities for young people, such as sports teams, clubs, volunteer groups, or other organizations.
It is worth noting that joining MAGs is not the only way that young people have responded to these trends. Organized crime – including smuggling, trafficking, and illegal logging and poaching – is an appealing option for young people seeking both a source of income and a tight social network. So is gang membership. In fact, when one considers the myriad of illicit organizations that might seek to recruit from a population of unemployed and frustrated youth, MAGs might be considered relatively benign.
Still, MAGs potentially threaten Timor-Leste’s peace and security in at least three ways.
First, violent competition among MAGs can lead to injury and in some cases death. This is a problem for residents of certain neighborhoods, who report feeling unsafe going out at night due to the threat of youth violence. But it is mostly a problem for MAG members themselves, who could lose their lives because of an inconsequential dispute. The recent case of a young man killed in a fight between MAGs in Dili’s Hudi Laran illustrates the human cost of organized youth violence.
Second, MAGs can prove useful tools for opportunistic politicians seeking to foment unrest or to manufacture crises for their own political gain. As many analysts have noted, Timor-Leste’s 2006 crisis was not a spontaneous explosion of violence; instead, certain politicians directed MAGs to engage in looting and other forms of criminality as part of a calculated political strategy aimed at reducing confidence in government. Even today, many leaders use MAGs to boost electoral participation in their localities and to intimidate voters and opponents. So long as there is a surfeit of youth organizations that operate in the shadow of the law, politicians will manipulate them in order to achieve their own national-level objectives. Thus, the existence of MAGs indirectly poses a threat to Timor-Leste’s democracy and political processes.
Third, and most relevant to Major General Lere’s recent statements, the mere fear of MAGs may prompt heavy-handed responses from the state that erode the rule of law. Timor-Leste’s constitution clearly states that the role of the police force, the PNTL, is to maintain internal order, while the role of the military, the F-FDTL, is to repel external threats. Thus, any F-FDTL military operation against MAGs would be a violation of the law, and a slippery slope toward increased military involvement in internal matters. As examples around the world illustrate, once a country’s military expands its mandate domestically, even in the case of a perceived emergency, it can be incredibly difficult to rein it in. Police, too, have often responded to MAGs with brutal methods that alienate local residents and push PNTL further away from its stated commitment to community policing. In this sense, the biggest negative consequence of MAGs may not be their violence, but the state’s.
It is important to keep worries about MAGs in check. While MAGs do present a challenge, they are often demonized in public discourse and made to be a bigger problem than they are. Yet only 4 percent of police officers say that MAGs are the greatest threat facing their locality. Unwarranted fears about MAGs can lead to military and police responses that create new and greater problems. At the same time, because military responses do not address the root economic and social drivers of MAG membership, they cover up the symptoms while leaving the disease untreated.
Fundasaun Mahein (FM) recognizes that MAG violence must be addressed at the roots through economic and social reforms, rather than through military means. FM makes the following recommendations:
• The Government must prioritize boosting employment among young people, including implementing job-training programs in fields such as construction, engineering, and tourism. It should increase investment in the non-oil sector to promote employment in industries likely to last for decades to come.
• The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports should review the educational curriculum to ensure it matches Timor-Leste’s current and future needs. Schools and universities must better prepare students for the workforce, including imparting language abilities, technical skills, and critical thinking skills.
• The Government must continue to promote high enrollment of youth in primary and secondary school by working with families to keep children in school.
• The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, and the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion should work with relevant NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to promote alternative forms of social association and community for young people. These include but are not limited to sports leagues, clubs, youth groups, and volunteer organizations.
• Critically, the Government must, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, devise a comprehensive strategy for addressing the youth problem. Rather than pursue piecemeal reform, the Government should define a cohesive agenda that delivers education, employment, and social opportunities for young people.
It is important to acknowledge that MAGs are not inherently problematic. While some MAGs act as vehicles for violent competition, the practice of martial arts itself can serve a valuable social function, giving young people a healthy outlet for aggression and a sense of camaraderie.
FM recommends that the Government adopt policies that address the negative aspects of MAGs while preserving the positive aspects of these groups. In particular, it makes the following recommendations:
• MAGs should be legal but regulated; banning MAGs will only drive them underground, making the problem more difficult to address and increasing youth resentment.
• The Government and relevant NGOs and CSOs should consider ways to promote the athletic aspect of MAGs, by, for example, organizing official martial arts leagues and hosting tournaments and competitions. These policies could transform MAGs into socially productive organizations, and even unique drivers of tourism.
Finally, MAG violence must continue to be addressed by PNTL in line with the community policing approach. Except in the case of genuine emergencies – and MAG violence is no emergency – the role of F-FDTL has never been, and must never be, to respond to internal matters.