Politicisation of Martial and Ritual Arts Groups: Implications for National Security, Peacebuilding & Development

KHUNTO election campaign event, 2017

Building on Fundasaun Mahein’s (FM) prior and ongoing research on the activities of martial and ritual arts groups (MAGs) in Timor-Leste, this report analyses the potential implications of “MAG politicisation” for Timor-Leste’s security and development. In this context, “politicisation” refers to MAGs’ increasingly visible political participation and organising, both before and during election periods, along with the rise of MAG-affiliated political parties and purported collaboration between MAG leaders and political parties. The report draws on primary and secondary research conducted by FM during 2022 and 2023, including the lead-up to the 2023 Parliamentary Election, and expands on previous analyses published by FM spanning a period of more than a decade.

The key finding of this research is that while there are valid concerns regarding the activities of MAGs and their contribution to violence, disorder and instability, many of the risks associated with MAGs are neither isolated to, nor primarily driven by, MAGs themselves. For example, communal violence is a frequent occurrence in Timor-Leste, and often does not involve MAGs. At the same time, many incidences of so-called “MAG violence” stem from localised disputes between individuals, which can escalate when other MAG members join in to defend their comrades. Similarly, during periods of political instability and crisis, MAGs have participated in violence and contributed to unrest, but have been neither primary instigators nor sole participants in these conflicts. Political instability in post-independence Timor-Leste, rather, has been driven by a complex set of factors, particularly histories of armed conflict, elite competition, weak institutions and failures in the state-building process.

FM finds that a fundamental parallel exists between MAGs and Timorese society at large, namely the blurring of lines between formal institutions and informal practices. Just as the boundaries between MAGs and extended families and communities are indistinct, so are those between MAs and political parties, as well as between MAGs and state institutions. This is representative of the broader reality in Timor-Leste, where relationships between families, communities, political parties, state bureaucracy, and private businesses intertwine. In this tightly-knit society dominated by traditional social structures, the personal is connected to the political. This is especially pronounced given the shared experience of the independence struggle which occurred within the living memory of most of the population. Meanwhile, formal rules are often overlooked in favour of informal deal-making and networks, spanning from the family level to the highest government decision-making structures. Formal structures, including parties, government institutions, and businesses, blend into informal relationships of family and other personal networks.

The predominance of informal institutions and practices is a defining characteristic of developing countries in contrast to developed countries, where formal institutions, rules and systems are typically more developed and entrenched. Ideal-typical concepts of formal political party structures, political participation and even the rule of law may prove problematic when applied to contexts with distinct historical and social circumstances. In the same way, the complex ways that MAGs intersect with Timorese cultural, social, and political institutions calls for a nuanced understanding of the phenomenon known as “MAG politicisation” and its potential security implications.

This report thus acknowledges the blurred lines between formal institutions and informal practices in Timor-Leste’s context, and applies this framework to the question of MAG politicisation. By doing so, it aims to achieve a more comprehensive and grounded understanding of their social and political role. In this framing, MAGs – and MAG-affiliated political parties – can be seen as reflecting pre-existing conditions and practices, while responding to societal needs and filling gaps left by the state and political parties. Moreover, it is essential to recognize their historical, cultural, and social significance within the fabric of Timorese society, and the benefits they bring to their members and communities. FM believes that this perspective is crucial for designing effective policies and interventions that foster inclusivity, youth development, and stronger links between policy making and community needs.

Thus, although MAG recruitment and overt political organising have increased in recent years, we believe these activities currently present a low to moderate threat to security and stability in Timor-Leste. Certainly, when compared to other serious, systemic threats to national security and public safety, such as the weak rule of law, mismanagement and corruption in public administration, widespread poverty and insecurity, and the state’s financial sustainability, MAG political organising must be considered a secondary security risk. Moreover, as noted above and throughout this report, the increasingly visible involvement of MAGs in politics may best be understood as a response to structural conditions of informality, socio-economic under-development, generalised insecurity, and political exclusion. Similarly, most “MAG violence” is inextricable from the generalised conditions of insecurity and informality in which it occurs. Therefore, we believe that addressing these systemic threats is the only viable way the state can manage the issues of MAG-related violence, recruitment and political organising.

This report does not seek to dismiss the risks posed by illicit MAG activities or political organising to public order, rule of law and political stability, nor the possibility that political support for MAG-affiliated parties may continue to grow. Rather, it aims to develop a more nuanced understanding of MAGs’ role within communities and in Timor-Leste’s political culture. We hope that this can then contribute to improved policies and programs related to peacebuilding, youth engagement and national development. Constructive engagement between MAGs, state authorities and civil society is essential for minimising violence and maximising MAGs’ potential as peace actors and contributors to national development. Tackling the structural drivers of violence, insecurity and instability in Timor-Leste, moreover, requires addressing the basic needs of the vulnerable population through inclusive governance and developmental programs, while strengthening state institutions through adequate resource provision and capacity development.

To learn more about this issue, please follow the links below:

 

(PRESS RELEASE)

 

(FULL REPORT)

 

Fundasaun Mahein

Email: mahein2009@gmail.com

Telemovel: (+670) 75771766

Website: www.fundasaunmahein.org

 

 

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Fundasaun Mahein (FM), 20 January 2016 Press Release The Efforts and Challenges of Timor-Leste’s Commitment to ASEAN “From the Perspective of Political/Security and Economic Sectors” The Association of South East