Martial and Ritual Arts Groups: a complex challenge requiring an integrated strategy

Photo: Tatoli

This article discusses the ongoing challenge posed by the activities of Martial and Ritual Arts Groups (MRAGs) to public safety, rule of law and national security in Timor-Leste. It analyses the State’s attempts to deal with this issue since independence, while exploring some of the drivers of MRAG recruitment and violence. Finally, it provides some suggestions for ways to improve state policies towards MRAGs, concluding that the Government must develop an integrated strategy which addresses the structural drivers of MRAG recruitment and violence in order to achieve sustainable peace and security in Timor-Leste.

Fundasaun Mahein (FM) notes that this is an extremely complex issue, with roots in the Indonesian occupation, resistance struggle and Timorese society itself. Therefore, this article cannot provide a simple answer to the question of how the Timorese State should respond to MRAGs in a way that best promotes public safety and the rule of law. However, we hope that this analysis can contribute to constructive discussion among Timorese society and our state decision makers about how to deal with this problem.

State policies towards MRAGs have been inconsistent

MRAGs have been involved in many public disturbances since Timor-Leste’s independence, including participating in communal violence during the 2006 crisis and regular violent incidents which have provoked fear and anxiety among the public. There is also evidence which suggests that many members of Timor-Leste’s state security forces are also members of MRAGs, while some people suspect that certain MRAGs may be coordinating with former Timorese militia members living in West Timor to provoke social and political instability inside Timor-Leste.

These concerns have provoked much public discussion about what to do about these groups, with some arguing for authoritarian crackdowns and “zero tolerance”, and others promoting conciliatory approaches, including legalisation and regulation. Unfortunately, no solution has been found until now, while membership of these groups appears to have increased in recent years.

Reflecting the lack of consensus among Timor-Leste’s leaders about how best to respond to this issue, the Timorese State has adopted various positions towards MRAGs since independence. This includes passing laws to legalise and regulate these groups, while at other times banning them and using the security forces to repress them. For example, Law No. 10/2008 was passed to regulate martial arts activities, which included the creation of the Council for Regulation of Martial Arts (CRAM). Later, in 2011-2013, several Laws and Resolutions were passed which aimed to ban and cause the “extinction” of several MRAGs, including Government Resolutions No. 35/2011 and No. 16/2013.

However, as FM noted several years ago, the State’s implementation of these resolutions was quite limited. At the time, we said that this showed the lack of willingness by security forces to confront MRAGs, which may be partly due to infiltration by these groups. At the same time, criminalisation of MRAGs has generally failed, as they have simply continued to practice their activities in secret places. For this reason, FM has long advocated for the legalisation of MRAGs, as we believe that this is the only way to ensure that MRAG activities can be monitored while maximising their contribution to Timor-Leste’s national development and security.

During political campaigns in 2018, there was increased discussion about legalising MRAGs, including among major political parties. The new party KHUNTO has also gained much support since then, even though its sister martial arts organisation remained illegal. In mid-2022, the Government held a ceremony to legalise three major groups, including KORK, which is affiliated with KHUNTO. Meanwhile, other political parties are also recruiting MRAG leaders and members to assist in mobilising support, illustrating that Timorese politicians increasingly recognise the importance of these groups as political actors.

Authoritarian approaches are ineffective

Several weeks ago in August 2022, there were violent clashes between two MRAGs in Dili, which resulted in multiple deaths, including the death of a MRAG member in police custody. The Government then ordered a joint police-military operation as a “show of force” against MRAGs. Just a few days ago, PNTL arrested twenty-six (26) members of the PSHT organisation for allegedly violating the terms of their agreement with the Government, which included agreeing not to perform their activities in public spaces.

FM deplores the violent and illegal behaviour of MRAG members which threatens public safety and peace in Timor-Leste. The legalization of certain MRAGs was a positive step by the Government which showed goodwill towards these groups which wield significant influence in Timorese society. The failure of MRAG leaders to control their members’ behaviour indicates that simply giving formal recognition and support to these groups will not solve the problem of illegal violence and public disorder.

However, we are also concerned that the authoritarian or militarised approach sometimes adopted by the State could contribute to increased tensions and conflict in our society. In our recent article, we noted that the death of a MRAG member in police custody represents a failure by PNTL to fulfil its security mission. Furthermore, the case has already provoked increased social tensions, followed by an escalated state response. We fear that more aggressive state actions will provoke further violent clashes with between MRAGs and state security forces, contributing to a cycle of violence and increased alienation and resentment among communities, especially youth.

The State needs to understand and address root causes of MRAG activity

FM believes that for the State to adequately respond to this problem, it is necessary to understand the root causes of why young people continue to join these groups in large numbers, and why they engage in violence. While many see these groups as an Indonesian cultural practice “imported” into Timor, or as the result of Indonesian infiltration, it is also clear that they are deeply embedded in Timorese society. Important factors driving MRAG membership and youth violence – which FM has written about previously – include the exclusion of young people from the development process, poor educational and employment opportunities and lack of facilities and events for youth engagement. The rise of KHUNTO and MRAG membership is directly linked with the sense of exclusion and alienation from political and socio-economic processes felt by many youth across the country.

Furthermore, based on FM’s discussions and observations, another key factor driving MRAG recruitment and violence relates to concerns about self-defence and protection of clan and village. This is reflected in the fact that the composition of MRAGs is usually aligned with kinship networks, while each bairro in Dili and other urban areas is made up of aldeias, and each aldeia usually incorporates one extended family or clan within its territory. Often, all the youth in one aldeia belongs to a single MRAG. Communal conflict occurs when one community mobilises its youth to defend its territory from attacks – real or perceived – by members of another community. This indicates that most violent conflict in Timor-Leste occurs between one aldeia and another, rather than within one aldeia.

Another key factor driving MRAG activity is the lack of state security presence and responsiveness, which results in a failure of the state to provide basic security in many areas. There are many reasons for this, including limitations in transport, human resources and basic equipment. Another major issue is that due to a lack of police dormitories, many PNTL officers are assigned to work in their home areas, as there are no places for them to live if posted outside their home area. As a result, criminal cases are often resolved through traditional cultural methods, rather than formal justice procedures. This undermines the state policing system and the rule of law within both communities and the policing institution itself. Further, it may increase perception among youth that in order to guarantee security, they must join informal community self-defence organisations.

As a result of this security and policing gap, many Timorese youth today thus face a dilemma: either they can refuse to join any group, which means that they face potential violence from all MRAGs; or, they can choose to join one group – usually the one to which other extended family members in their aldeia already belong – where they will continue to face the threat of violent attacks, but they will be protected by other members of their own group. Many Timorese youth also join these groups because they provide a sense of belonging, camaraderie and facilities for exercise and physical improvement. They may also become involved in community and political activities through their involvement in MRAGs. On the other hand, by joining a group they may also face criminalisation and possible violence at the hands of state security forces. Thus, we can see that either joining or not joining MRAGs brings various risks and benefits to young people.

Military solutions are unlikely to solve the problem

Some leaders see obligatory military service (SMO) as a solution to the problems faced by Timorese youth, including their involvement in MRAGs. When the Obligatory Military Service Law was passed in 2020, FM expressed concern that the decision to implement SMO was based on political promises rather than on serious consideration of the feasibility and risks/benefits of such a program. While we recognize that such a program could promote discipline and patriotic spirit among young people, FM believes that this can only happen if SMO is part of a wider government strategy to facilitate educational and economic opportunities and promote a culture of peace and cooperation.

FM appreciates that many leaders come from a military background, and therefore place very high value on discipline and order, and we also agree that these values are important to maintain a functioning society. However, we also worry that some decision makers assume that simply using a military approach to promote discipline will resolve the problems of Timor-Leste’s youth, but are neglecting educational and economic factors which also contribute to indiscipline, disorder and insecurity in our country.


To properly respond to the complex challenge of GAMR recruitment and violence, FM believes that a more integrated, consistent and evidence-based approach is needed. Therefore, we suggest the following actions as necessary starting points for an integrated, whole-of-government response towards MRAGs.

  • Policy makers must thoroughly assess the main factors underlying the attractiveness of MRAGs for many Timorese youth. Generalised conditions of insecurity, communal conflict, lack of youth facilities, limited educational and economic opportunities, weak state security presence and responsiveness, widespread acceptance of violence to resolve disputes, and the benefits of MRAG membership are all important drivers of the growth of MRAG membership and violence.
  • The Government must establish effective mechanisms to monitor the leaders, members and activities of MRAGs, including creating a registration process and electronic database. At the same time, PNTL must be provided with sufficient resources to provide adequate security in all areas of the country, including monitoring illegal MRAG activities. One major issue which FM believes undermines the policing system is the lack of PNTL dormitories to enable police officers to be posted outside their home areas.
  • State policies towards MRAGs should avoid criminalising marginalised youth, as this can create increased conflict and violation of vulnerable young people’s rights and dignity. This approach can also damage the relationship between young people and the state even further and generate increased support for political parties connected to MRAGs. Heavy-handed approaches could also strengthen MRAGs by increasing communal tensions and confrontations with security forces, thereby obliging MRAGs to take increased measures to defend themselves and their communities.
  • In the past, some politicians have said that martial and ritual arts are “imported” from Indonesia, while condemning the youth who participate in them as “unpatriotic”. This approach has clearly failed to significantly reduce the popularity of MRAGs. FM sees that policy makers should accept that these practices are now deeply embedded within Timorese society, which means that different strategies are needed.
  • The State should identify and promote the positive aspects of martial and ritual arts, such as patriotism, self-defence, community activism, sportsmanship and fitness. Structured competitions would be a useful way to channelling these activities in a positive way, which can be organised by SEJD in collaboration with other relevant state bodies. Martial and ritual arts displays and training programs could also be a major tourist attraction. Indeed, many countries have successfully promoted their traditional martial arts practices to foreign visitors, while UNESCO considers numerous martial arts as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, including Indonesian Pencak Silat and Brazilian Capoeira.
  • To combat the infiltration of state security institutions by unregulated MRAGs, the Government should establish a formal martial arts training program within the security forces which can provide useful fitness, unarmed combat and philosophical training. At the same time, PNTL and F-FDTL leaders must take disciplinary action against force members who involve themselves in unregulated martial arts activities.
  • Finally, from Fundasaun Mahein’s perspective, containing the social and political threat presented by illegal martial arts activities requires that state policies must ultimately address the structural drivers of insecurity and conflict within and between communities. This includes long-term problems such as sub-standard education, limited economic opportunities and inadequate facilities and programs for engaging young people in productive activities. Resolving these complex structural problems presents major challenges for our state decision makers. However, FM sees that overcoming them is the only way to achieve sustainable peace and security in Timor-Leste.

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