The crisis of Timorese youth as institutional failure to promote responsibility, creativity and inclusion

The crisis of Timorese youth as institutional failure to promote responsibility, creativity and inclusion post thumbnail image

Photo: Internet

This article responds to growing public concerns regarding the phenomenon of youth violence and other problematic behaviours occurring in bairros across the country. Frequent violent incidents, including beatings, stabbings and stone-throwing, are causing serious harm to individuals and terrorising communities across the country. At the same time, anti-social behaviour such as revving motorcycles, public littering and sexual harassment are commonplace. Many consider these behaviours as a public nuisance, or, even worse, as a threat to Timor-Leste’s socio-political stability, and call for harsh measures against the perpetrators. This concern is understandable given Timor-Leste’s fragile state institutions, history of conflict and looming fiscal cliff. Others argue that today’s youth are, first and foremost, victims of a sluggish economy and weak public education system, and that the solution is to invest in human resource development and job creation. Still others point to Timor-Leste’s history of conflict as the root of youth violence today, while others blame the proliferation of martial and ritual arts groups. Academics writing on youth issues in Timor-Leste have also pointed to a crisis of masculinity as being at the core of youth violence and disorder.

While these is likely some truth to all these arguments, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) believes that the anti-social behaviour of some Timorese youth is also partly linked with the failure of key institutions to instil a sense of responsibility and purpose in the young generation through inclusive programs which enhance their participation in meaningful activities. As this has not been discussed to the same extent as the views mentioned above, FM has written the following article, which focuses on the role of social, political and religious institutions in shaping the attitudes and behaviour of the youth of the nation.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of Timorese youth is well-behaved and respectful, citizens have become accustomed to witnessing groups of young people – primarily young men – behaving poorly in public, including committing acts of violence, damaging the environment and disturbing peace and quiet within communities. Group fights are seen regularly in the streets and on viral videos. In bairros throughout the capital city and beyond, young men gather on the streets each night, conversing loudly, drinking alcohol, playing loud music and harassing passers-by (especially young women and girls). Groups of youth often show a total disregard for public facilities, frequently leaving large quantities of waste in their wake. Worryingly, disrespect for law and order seems to be widespread, with regular incidents of property crime, arson and violent attacks against rivals. In a troubling example which occurred recently, reports circulated about young men setting up roadblocks on the road to Manatuto, extorting passing motorists to pay an illegal tax.

The regular occurrence of problematic youth behaviour across much of the country has generated much public discussion. As noted in the introduction, various explanations have been provided for the disorderly conduct: fir example, many point to the stagnant economy, inadequate education, lack of work opportunities and lack of facilities for youth as the principal factors driving these phenomena. Of course, it is true that the large youth population and limited formal employment means that many young people are left without daily activities. As a result, there is a pervasive sense of apathy, boredom and frustration amongst youth, which likely increases the tendency to engage in physical fights about inconsequential matters. 

Another key factor which continues to profoundly influence societal attitudes and practices until now is Timor-Leste’s past experiences with violent conflict. This legacy  can be seen in the high degree of acceptability of violence within many families and communities. As many observers have noted, the “normalisation of violence” across Timorese society is a major factor shaping the behaviour of the youth today.

As noted above, these “structural” factors have already been the subject of discussion by many observers. Therefore, rather than elaborating further on these topics, here FM wishes to analyse the contribution of three key institutions to today’s crisis of youth, namely: the country’s political leadership; the Catholic Church; and the family.

First, in FM’s view, the 1975 generation of leaders has neglected its responsibility to invest in improving the character and inclusion of the youth through programs which engage them actively constructive activities. As FM and others have noted many times, Timor-Leste’s politicians spend too much time playing “high level” political games and travelling to international events, while neglecting the basic needs of the vulnerable population. The results of this can be seen when contrasting Timor-Leste’s international political ranking with the material living conditions of the population: Timor-Leste receives regular praise as being one of the “most democratic” countries in Asia; at the same time, half the population lives in poverty, malnutrition is rife, the domestic economy is stagnant, public services are dysfunctional and basic infrastructure is lacking.

The glamourous international exploits of Timorese elites feed a sense of hopelessness among many, who know that politicians will never listen to their concerns. Others learn the lesson provided by elites and political parties when they constantly attack each other: to access the opportunities and benefits which come with power, everyone must play the “dirty games” of politics. In FM’s view, this promotes, on one hand, to a sense of nihilism on the part of many youth, who (rightly) believe that the state does not care about their lives or future. On the other hand, the unaccountable and often lawless behaviour of many public officials contributes to a general disregard for the rule of law and authority among the younger generation.

A key feature of the political economy which has emerged under the leadership of the 1975 generation and has produced profound societal effects is the dominance of the “project.” Since independence, and particularly since the arrival of international donor agencies after 1999, Timorese have become accustomed to a huge array of projects being implemented in their communities. Today, Timor-Leste’s private sector relies heavily on “projects” (government contracts). Many projects are unaccountable, unsustainable, poorly implemented, and lacking in significant benefits to communities. Meanwhile, communities understand that the project owner is profiting handsomely from the project, especially those projects which are tied up with political or party interests. 

This model of “development” has reduced the sense of ownership among both recipient communities and workers regarding many projects, which limits both the quality of project implementation and people’s confidence in the development process more generally. At the same time, the dominance of the politicised, unaccountable “project” has taught people that the path to success lies not in producing useful goods or services to a high standard, but rather leveraging personal connections to gain access to projects. However, as most youth understand that they lack the connections to get rich by winning “projects,” this lesson is less likely to motivate young people as it is to exacerbate their profound sense of apathy, disempowerment and frustration. In this way, the dominance of the “project” can contribute – albeit indirectly – to unruly behaviour, disorder and even violence.

The second institution which bears a major share of responsibility for Timorese youth is the Catholic Church. FM appreciates the Church’s important role in supporting Timor-Leste’s independence, including by providing shelter to many youth activists, in numerous cases saving their lives. Moreover, the Church, in partnership with charitable organisations, continues to conduct important activities which benefit young people across the country. 

However, in the past, many more young people participated in Church activities. The truth is that for a large proportion of Timorese society, engagement with the Church is limited to attending weekly mass. It is unclear which factors have led to the current situation in which young people are less involved in Church activities. Regardless, FM believes that given the Catholic Church’s legitimacy within Timorese society, and its significant experience working with young people, the Church should play a more active role in supporting youth to overcome the various life challenges they face. In particular, the Church could address youth conflict by facilitating peace building programs, contribute to economic growth and skill development by supporting community development initiatives involving youth, and help to beautify communities and strengthen youth engagement and leadership by supporting youth-led environmental management initiatives. It could also provide life skills training and support for career development, including teaching young people about healthy relationships, family planning, anger management, discipline, CV-building, and so on.

The third and final institution FM sees as central to the current youth crisis is the Timorese family itself. For complex and varied reasons, many of which are related to poverty and lack of education, many families are failing to maximise their children’s creativity and motivation. For example, a common observation is that, for whatever reason, many parents do not see the value of reading or playing creative games with their children. Instead, thousands of young children are left to wander around in bands, where their characters are mostly formed by the “rules of the street.” In the home, violence between husbands and wives – and between parents and children – is widespread and normalised, perpetuating a cycle of violence.

The reasons for these family dynamics are complex; perhaps the large number of children in each family and lack of free time available to parents mean that parents do not have enough time or energy to provide individual attention and care to their children. Most Timorese parents today were born at a very difficult time; in many cases, they themselves did not receive optimal care, and therefore do not understand how to provide it to their own children. Young people’s mental and physical health is likely also being harmed by foreign goods which have arrived suddenly in a context where many lack the knowledge to use these items in a healthy way, such as smartphones and sugary drinks. 

By analysing these household practices, FM does not seek to “blame” Timorese families for their parenting habits and choices. As noted, most of the practices mentioned above are the result of poverty, legacies of conflict and a lack of education. Nonetheless, the results are clear: many young people in Timor-Leste are suffering from a lack of direction and positive influences within their homes. This limits individual mental and physical development, while contributing to the deteriorating youth situation – which FM has described in this article as a crisis of youth – facing the country.

In summary, FM sees widespread youth disorder and violence as symptoms of the broader social crisis in Timor-Leste, exacerbated by the failure of various institutions to instil Timorese youth with a sense of responsibility, purpose, motivation and engagement with the wider community. These problems are complex and deep-rooted; nonetheless, as the institutions which play the principal role in shaping the youth, together, the state, church and family must take on the primary responsibility for building their future.

To conclude this article, FM offers the following suggestions which we hope can help to remedy the current crisis of Timorese youth. First, political leaders must set a good example for the young generation by adhering to the rule of law and promoting meritocracy, while at the same time enacting policies which facilitate youth inclusion in the development process. This will enhance the state’s legitimacy, while promoting a sense of ownership and motivation, which can help to tackle the problems discussed in this article. 

Second, the Government must tackle the unjust, unsustainable “politicised project” model of development by ensuring that state development programs are developed based on people’s needs rather than on the grand dreams or interests of politicians. To ensure transparency, rule of law and high quality of work, the state must also guarantee that contracts and positions are awarded based on merit rather than political connections. If young people see meritocracy in action, they will be motivated to study and work hard to improve their lives. Without it, apathy and frustration will continue to reign.

Third, to engage youth in healthy, productive activities, significant investments are needed to strengthen facilities and programs for youth. The Church can cooperate with other civil society organisations to provide programs related to community activism, life skills, career development, healthy relationships and good parenting practices. 

Finally, FM has long advocated for the creation of a National Youth Policy to coordinate state programs targeting youth. Without such a policy to guide initiatives over the long-term, including through changes of government, youth programs will suffer from a lack of sustainability and coordination. Therefore, to guarantee that these programs support the ability of the young generation to participate meaningfully in the development process, FM urges the Government to create a National Youth Policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Post