Download Noisy and colorful campaigns have filled the streets of the East Timorese capital Dili as the country gears up for presidential election.
Racked by political violence in the country’s first election in 2006, this year’s elections will prove an important test for political stability in the new and impoverished nation.
With high rates of unemployment, low levels of education, and thousands of Timorese joining martial arts gangs, analysts say these groups are ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Kate Lamb investigates from Dili.
It’s just a few days before East Timor’s presidential election and I’m here at a rally for one of the most popular presidential candidates, Lu Olo Gutteres from the Fretilin Party.Almost half of Dili here, gathered around the stage waving flags, hanging from tree branches to get a better view of Lu Olo and piled in the back of pick up trucks beeping their horns.
The mood is electric.
23-year-old Deonisio da Silva Marques is among the crowd and he says it’s time for the country to move on from it’s militarized past.
“In my point of view, any political party can win, but one of the most important things is to educate the gangs to be peaceful. Any leader needs to unite the people of Timor as one, not just to serve certain militants. This is one of the roots of divisionism, and makes it more difficult to promote peace.”
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and brutally occupied the country for 24 years.
East Timor gained independence in 2002, but today’s armed groups and gangs have evolved from the clandestine resistance groups that fought to protect their communities during occupation.
Cillian Nolan is an analyst from the International Crisis Group.
“I think one inheritance from the history of the resistance struggle in Timor Leste is the strength of group identities. I think that is something we see in martial arts groups’ membership today. One such chief in Comoro told me about the importance to many young people today of the legacy of that resistance that was so crucial to Timor Leste obtaining independence. And the sense that young people today are looking for something to fight for, to the extent that they are ready to die for something.”
It is believed that more than 20,000 in a population of 1.1 million East Timorese are members of martial arts gangs. Today they are not fighting against Indonesian security forces, but amongst themselves.
Four years ago, there was an attempt to assassinate the president Jose Ramos Horta by a former military guy and gang leader. And later in the 2006 election, the country was racked by political and gang-led violence.
The attacks resulted in the destruction of up to 6,000 houses and the displacement of over 140,000 people.
Dr Daniel Murphy heads a free medical clinic and treated many of the victims of gang violence.
“2006 was bad and a lot of the active players were the martial arts groups and of course a lot of people did not dare to go to the national hospital because it was dominated by certain ethnic groups and was not safe. This place was seen as a safe haven for anyone… We had over a thousand refugees in our clinic and as far as poison arrows that kind of thing we have to be experts because we saw so many, hundreds and hundreds of them. Nobody knew who provoked who and who did what. People are now running for president and everyone seems to have forgotten about that, but it’s not that old, people still think about what happened back then.”
And after a murder of a villager on the outskirts of Dili in December last year the government has banned all martial arts from practicing for one year.
But Cillian Nolan from the International Crisis Group says the regulation is ineffective as many gangs have strong connections to the police and political parties.
“Sometimes the police are unwilling to fully investigate crimes against those in other members of martial groups, which the police themselves may be part of, or may have been involved in. I think there is still a lot to be done in terms of increasing independence and impartiality of the police to ensure these crimes are prosecuted.”
Nelson Belo is the head of a local NGO called Fundahasmein focusing on security and defense. He says the impunity for the violent attacks committed by martial arts groups or MAGs is not the only ‘time bomb’ to East Timor’s political security.
“It is not about MAG itself but also about unemployment. For now there is the government ban, but when the suspension for one year is end, when they reactivate, they are going to be involved in new problems again. So it will be again and again.”
Nearly 50 percent of Timorese live below the poverty line and 20 percent are unemployed.
Nelson Belo says this environment leads to young people feeling marginalized and drawn to martial arts groups.
It has also seen many of Dili’s youth join active political campaigns in capital before the election.
“I don’t like today when I saw people in caravans driving at high speed. To me that is provocative. Does it really get you that many votes? Do you really have to do that? Is that part of a campaign? I don’t think so and yet that is what we saw today and we still have the rest of this week to go. It doesn’t take much to provoke people. There are so many young people which so many hormones and so much energy and nothing really to do and no outlet for their ideas or anything.”
The March 17 presidential election is the second since the nation was officially recognized as independent in 2002.
East Timor has come a long way to stabilizing the country over recent years, but the impoverished and oil rich country has huge development challenges ahead.
Back at the rally, 23-year-old Deonisio da Silva Marques tells me that he has just graduated from his degree in business but can’t find a job.
“The leaders need to pay more attention to all martial arts in every villages and create employment. Once everyone gets employed, there will be no more conflict because everyone will be engaged in their own work. If there is still no jobs available, no change, unemployment, young people in the villages will provoke each other because they don’t have jobs. So any candidate who would like to be the president of this country, they must unite all the militants for the greater good of Timor-Leste.”