Disenchantment among young people who fought for independence during Timor-Leste's resistance years could lead to unrest if they are not included in the country's development process, analysts warned.
"They feel their existence is not relevant any more in this independence era," said Ozorio Leque, 28, leader of Colimau 2000 - a youth group set up by activists during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste.
A large number of disenfranchised youth are dissatisfied with high unemployment, low wages and lack of access to education, with only 27 percent completing secondary school. The World Bank estimates that by next year nearly 40 percent of the population will be between 15 and 29 years old.
Many turn to martial arts groups, with as many as 20,000 registered and 90,000 unregistered members.
"There is an assumption that when you join a group, you will be protected. The other reason is that most of the younger generation lack skills and knowledge so they take whatever they can get," said Leque.
About half the 1.1 million population lives below the poverty line. In Dili, unemployment is as high as 62 percent among those aged 15 to 19, while eight out of 10 young people engage in subsistence activities.
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Leque, who claims that Colimau 2000 has more than 20,000 members, is due at Dili District Court on 22 June to be tried for crimes related to events in 2006.
On 28 April 2006, he launched a verbal tirade against the government before a mob attacked the government palace and destroyed state vehicles.
The government of Mari Alkatiri, the first prime minister of an independent Timor-Leste, had been criticised after 600 mostly western soldiers were fired from the national army for abandoning their posts in protest against alleged discrimination.
There was widespread discontent as security forces were factionalised, the police force was weak, the political opposition was destabilising the government, and there were disputes over property, markets and trade routes.
The violence between gangs, members of martial arts groups, the police and the army that followed Leque's speech led to nearly 40 deaths and the displacement of more than 100,000, many of whom sought protection in makeshift camps.
"The wound that occurred in 2006 has not received proper treatment yet," Leque said.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
|One of the poorest countries in Asia, Timor-Leste was internationally recognised as an independent state on 20 May 2002|
However, gang specialist James Scambary, who released a report, Groups, Gangs and Armed Violence in Timor-Leste, in April, said: "Martial arts groups are not necessarily gangs. Some gangs may have martial arts group members, but martial arts groups are primarily sporting associations, with good and bad elements."
According to the report, gambling dens and protection rackets are among the primary sources of income for gangs in Timor-Leste.
In the Colmera shopping area in Dili, business owners told IRIN that members of gangs extorted money during the crisis of 2006.
Although extortion has declined since then, part of the reason for this could be that gang members have joined the security industry.
Aniceto Neves from the HAK Association, a human rights NGO, said members of martial arts groups now comprise the bulk of employees on the roster of Timor-Leste's legitimate security firms, while some business owners employ security directly from martial arts groups.
"It's a way of finding employment for them," he said.
Scambary added: "Unfortunately, the line between security and extortion is becoming increasingly blurred, with martial arts groups involved in both. Such blending of formal and informal security is of grave concern."
Meanwhile, Leque said the peace between martial arts group was only occasionally disrupted by individual conflicts.
"I have suggested to the government many times that it would be better to transform all the clandestine groups in the country into civil society groups. We need to transform them from a resistance mentality to a development-era mentality," he said.
In a recent article for Inside Indonesia, Scambary wrote, "With little imminent prospect of a land dispute settlement regime, and a barely functioning justice system and police force, it is likely that people will continue to seek vigilante justice to resolve their disputes and to use gangs and martial arts groups as enforcers."