Information und Analyse

Timor Leste – A Kaleidoscope of Conflicts

01 April 2008

Notes from a visit to Timor Leste and West Timor, October-December 2007

By Henri Myrttinen


The following paper is based on some of my impressions and observations from my visit to Timor Leste from 25.10.-24.11.2007. While I spent the majority of my time in Dili, I did also make several trips to the districts of Baucau (Afasa, Baucau, Vemasse), Cova Lima (Suai, Zumalai), Manufahi (Same) and Viqueque (incl. Uatolari). In addition, I interviewed several groups of ex-pro-integrationists (incl. ex-militia) in Indonesian West Timor in Atambua and Betun the following week.

I used the paper as a backgrounder to a presentation I held in early February 2008. Less than 24 hours later, it had been overtaken by events in Dili. The next turn of the kaleidoscope had taken place, and it was a dramatic one, leaving Major Alfredo Reinado and one of his supporters dead, President Ramos-Horta seriously wounded and the country under a state of siege/emergency. Rather than revisiting the paper and, for example, changing all sentences in which Reinado appears into the past tense, I chose to leave the paper as it stood, as a snapshot of the times.

Possible coup attempt aside, some of the issues which in late 2007 were rumoured to become ‘hot’ issues in 2008, such as MONALPOM (Movimento libertação do Povo Maubere), have not materialised. Thanks to the curfew, gang violence seems to have gone down and IDPs (internally displaced people) seem to be starting to be leaving camps, albeit in initially small numbers. The security situation has, however, gone in UN-speak from ‘calm but tense’ to ‘fragile.’

The attempted coup or kidnapping attempt has again highlighted many of the issues which have been characterised East Timorese politics: security sector problems, the role of rumour in political discourse and the strength of clientilist networks of patronage.

A continuing key problem is the existence of a highly politicised security sector hobbled by a lack of a clear delineation of tasks firstly between the East Timorese and international security forces and secondly within these two groups by the overlapping mandates of PNTL/F-FDTL (i.e. police vs. military; Polícia Nacional de Timor-Leste/ Forças Armadas de Defesa de Timor-Leste) on the one hand and UNPOL/ISF (United Nations Police/International Stabilisation Forces) on the other. The waters have been further muddied by the new joint F-FDTL/PNTL command on the Timorese side and the arrival of Australian non-UNPOL AFP (Australian Federal Police ) on the international side.

Not surprisingly, the events of February 11, 2008, have spawned a plethora of rumours and conspiracy theories. In addition to ‘grassroots’ speculation spreading by SMS and word-of-mouth, many of these ‘truths’ are being peddled publicly by key members of the political and security sector elite, doing more to add to the ‘kingdom of fear’ rather than shedding light on the actual events. Whether or not these conspiracy theories prove to be true or not is one thing, but in my opinion the phenomenon itself deserves further analysis.

The coup/kidnapping attempt and its aftermath are also an indication of the strength of clientilist patronage networks on East Timorese politics, regardless of what ‘The Truth’ about the events turns out to be in the end. While problematic in many ways when considered from a ‘western’ perspective, they are also one of the foundations upon which East Timorese society is built, which also create openings for conflict resolution.

But on to the already aged snapshot…


KaleidoskopLike the pieces in a kaleidoscope, the conflicts in Timor Leste come in a range of various shapes and sizes. Some are bright and visible, others remain hidden from view. They overlap, link and lock into each other, they are reflected in each other, and with every turn of events, the shape, form, size and colour of the overall pattern produced changes.

I chose to use the kaleidoscope metaphor in order to try and visualise for myself the dynamics of the numerous conflicts and their permutations in this country. The different types of conflicts (e.g. political conflicts, land rights and other socio-economic conflicts, communal conflicts, gang fighting) are interlinked in various ways, some rise to temporary prominence while others simmer below the surface. Local conflicts are reflected in national level conflicts and vice-versa, conflicts change shape and form, adversaries become allies and allies become adversaries.

In general, the country remains ‘calm but tense,’ to use UNMIT (United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste) press releases’ favourite description of the situation. It is definitely calmer and less tense than what I have seen it like during my previous visits over the past 1,5 years since the krize broke out. Though the number of serious incidents has come down quite a bit, there are several stonings, stand-offs and clashes in Dili every week with the occasional death to be mourned. Tensions and conflicts are also still simmering in other parts of the country, be it Baucau, Ermera, Uatolari or Same. There seems to be a sense of ‘wait and see’ in the country, with some cautious optimism here and there mixed in with a sense that it could all get a lot worse in a short while if things go wrong with the next turn of the kaleidoscope.

The kaleidoscope metaphor should however not lead us to conclude that the ‘turns of events’ are merely controlled by an outside hand. Though outside influences, such as the role of the ‘international community,’ invariable have impacts on Timorese reality, most of the turns of the kaleidoscope are created by the Timorese actors themselves.

The various conflicts in this country need of course to be seen in the greater context of the country’s difficult socio-economic situation, which I assume the readers are aware of the basic facts already.

Any analysis which concentrates on conflicts in any given society runs the risk of painting an excessively gloomy picture of that society. The following account of the various fault lines which criss-cross East Timorese society may therefore also give an overall picture which comes across as excessively negative and pessimistic. Though it remains in a fragile state, Timor Leste is not on the verge of an impending ex- or implosion, nor does it deserve the label of a ‘failed state.’ As mentioned above, the situation this time around was far calmer than on my previous visits since May 2006. The conflicts are however there in society, some visible and others latent, and unfortunately a lot of the actors at all levels in Timorese society have tended over the past few years to act in unconstructive ways, exacerbating conflicts rather than mitigating them.

Conflicts – a limited overview

I have tried to classify some of the various conflicts in Timor Leste in no particular order below. The relative importance or prominence of the various types of conflict changes frequently, with AMP (Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority, i.e. the current government coalition) vs. Fretilin being the talk of town on one day only to fade into the background by an upsurge in gang violence the next day and Alfredo on the third and so on. The prominence of a particular conflict issue depends both on real events and rumours of events which (might) have, are or will happen.

My listing of various conflicts below is also by no means an exhaustive list. I have left numerous other issues off the list (e.g. role of the Church in society, language issues, etc.) as there are not prominent on the agenda at the moment. Other issues remain in the background and work to increase the urgency of these conflicts. These include the poor food security situation and the ticking demographic time-bomb. Also, other conflicts may arise suddenly, say for example an escalation of a minor incident involving ISF forces which could further fan already existing latent anti-Australian sentiment and lead to new conflicts.

Political conflicts

This time around I deliberately did not want to spend too much time getting involved with the minutiae of the various political manoeuvres which are going on at the various levels, from the local to the international, as I needed time and space for my research and other work. So instead of getting into who has been making deals with whom, I chose just two of the most pertinent issues at the moment and to give a very brief and general overview of them both: the on-going AMP-Fretilin struggle and the Alfredo saga.

Party politics

The key party political issue remains the unwillingness of Fretilin to fully accept the AMP government. Though Fretilin has been toning down its rhetoric and behaving increasingly like a constructive opposition on the one hand, on the other hand the party is still continuing its extra-parliamentary ‘struggle’ politics. Fretilin has announced that it will start up a new ‘grassroots’ struggle campaign against the government early 2008 and a new organisation called MONALPOM (Movimento Libertacao do Povo Maubere – also sometimes referred to as MONALPON) has been established with the same goal. From what I can tell, the latter has gangland links as well as connections with Fretilin ‘militants 1,’ but being a relatively new development I am not quite sure if it is anything more than a chimera or not. They first appeared in August 2007 but failed to make much of an impact. The ‘movement’ announced, in theory separately from Fretilin, a new round of the struggle for early 2008 but this has apparently failed to materialise to date.

In terms of the parliamentary part of the AMP/Fretilin struggle, Fretilin has been very effective in keeping up the rhetorical heat on the government and has been very prolific in churning out press releases and political analyses on all sorts of topics, in an obvious attempt to indicate that it is they, not the government, with the more functioning political and analytical machinery. Fretilin has also repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of the AMP government at almost every turn, in what often seems to amount to pure disruptionism. Recently, for example, on December 11, 2007, Fretilin called the timetable for the parliamentary debate on the national budget ‘illegal’ and on January 31, 2008 Alkatiri demanded new parliamentary elections.

The political struggle between the two blocs has had some major local impacts, with local conflicts, e.g. long-running land conflicts, being ‘transformed’ into political AMP- vs. Fretilin-supporter conflicts, at least in Baucau and Viqueque districts. In these transformations, old grievances between groups re-erupted in August 2007 with the naming of the AMP-government and now became ‘political’ conflicts.

Fretilin has also been very active in putting up its own party flags in the IDP camps in Dili and environs, though the actual support for the party in the camps is difficult to gauge and the camps are, apparently, politically divided as well.

In effect, the political struggle tends to be seen by many in the political elite as a zero-sum game in which two (or more) competing clientilist networks fight for control of the state apparatus, an apparatus that is being seen as a kind of ‘booty’ for the group that emerges victorious from the fight. Concepts such as ‘constructive opposition’ or ‘political compromise’ have little room in this struggle, though it is not uncommon to have shifting alliances. On the other hand, these can be seen as a form of ‘checks and balances’ and it needs also to be noted that the electorate does not necessarily view the struggles in the same way as the political elite.

Kasus Alfredo

The Alfredo-case remains as confused as ever, with the only clear thing being the apparent unwillingness of either the government or the UN to try and resolve the issue by arresting Major Alfredo Reinado. The court case against him started in Dili District Court on December 3, 2007, accompanied by mixed messages as to who is responsible for dealing with the case (see for example UNMIT Press Review December 5, 2007). The same Press Review also includes a transcript of a TVTL interview with Major Reinado where he himself also gives rather contradictory messages as to whether he would be ready to stand trial or not and under what circumstances. Major Reinado and his men have relocated to Gleno from Same, and they did not show up to a planned dialogue session with President Gusmão in Aileu in late November. Instead he went on TV with his men and conducted a military parade in Gleno with no intervention from either the Timorese or UN authorities.

The most recent development has been the public distribution in Timor Leste (and globally via of an interview in which Alfredo accuses Xanana of being the mastermind behind the 2006 crisis. The interview has been instrumentalised by Fretilin, who are now calling for a thorough investigation of Xanana Gusmão’s role in the • .

Previous to Alfredo’s increased media visibility which started towards the end of November, I got a sense (albeit one based on random interviews and straw polls) that popular support for him seemed to be on the wane, with the sentiment prevailing that he should face up to the charges against him. His image as a quasi-messianic ‘father of justice’ (to quote a graffiti in Suai) seems to have suffered a bit over the course of the year.

What is striking though is that none of the key actors, Timorese or foreign, have been able to come up with either a way to settle the issue or a strong will to do so. The buck is being passed around from the Timorese government to the ISF to UNMIT to the judiciary and back to the government with no realistic solution in sight unless Major Reinado chooses to turn himself in voluntarily – which seems rather unlikely.

Major Alfredo Reinado has been rather successful at tapping into the aspirations of the youth and casting himself as a challenger to the status quo, perhaps increasingly so as he continues to burn his bridges to the political elite, casting himself as a man of action. On the other hand, he also risks making himself irrelevant if the Timorese people start tiring of his antics and of his continued threat to the concept of the unity of the nation.

‘Gang’ violence

One of the main security concerns in Timor Leste today, and especially in Dili, are the violence-prone groups, consisting mainly of young men. I am using the term ‘gang’ here mainly for convenience and for lack of a better term, but as outlined below this term covers martial arts and ritual arts groups, militant veterans’ organisations as well as bona fide gangs. The term ‘youth’ should also be seen in the Timorese context, as referring to a broader group than just, say, 12-19 year olds. The ‘youth’ term can cover people who are well into their thirties, with the official age for ‘youth’ leaders set at 35 years.

In general, gang violence in late 2007 has come down at least in Dili from the worst levels, but sporadic fighting do still happen, with the occasional person killed or wounded, especially in the western part of the city. What has happened over the past year or so is that the gang violence phenomenon has become more pronounced and visible outside of the capital as well, down to small and relatively isolated rural communities.

The potentially violence-prone groups can be divided into roughly four categories: martial arts groups, ritual arts groups, gangs and veterans’ groups.

• Martial arts groups (MAGs)

These groups derive their common identity from practicing a particular form of martial arts, such as karate, pencak silat, judo or taekwondo. While some groups concentrate strictly on practicing martial arts for sports, others have taken to ‘extracurricular’ activities such as street fighting and extortion. The main MAGs are Persaudaraan Setia Hati Terate (PSHT), Kera Sakti and Kung Fu Master. These groups have often been fighting each other for influence and control of territory. PSHT is the largest and most influential MAG.

Many of the MAGs started up during the years of the Indonesian occupation and learned their martial arts skills from Indonesian teachers, often members of the Indonesian military. This does not however mean that they were tied to the Indonesian security apparatus in the same way that the militias were. Rather, the connections were of a personal nature and some of them have survived over the years. PSHT in Timor Leste, for example, is at least theoretically a branch of the Indonesian PSHT pencak silat ‘brotherhood.’

Ritual Arts Groups (RAGs)

Unlike the MAGs who the RAGs see as drawing on ‘imported’ skills and arts, these groups claim to base their identity of traditional Timorese rituals, though it seems highly likely that many of these traditions and rituals are ‘invented traditions.’ Many of the RAGs have joined something of an informal coalition called ‘Rai Nain’ which is in conflict with the MAGs, especially PSHT. However, this has not prevented RAGs of fighting each other as well. The main RAGs are 7-7, 5-5, Colimau 2000 and Korka.

Many of the RAGs tend to draw their following from disaffected former members of the ‘clandestine front’ who felt left out by the post-conflict DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) process which tended, at least in their eyes, to favour ex-Falintil combatants over other members of the resistance movement. The RAGs are arguably also more political in their outlook than the MAGs in general and stress the need for ‘real independence,’ perhaps unconsciously echoing the calls of Indonesia’s radical pemuda (youth) during the 1945-48 for ‘100 % merdeka (independence).’


In the East Timorese context the term ‘gang’ can refer to a range of groups, mostly based in and organised around a certain neighbourhood. Some of them consist merely of a group of juveniles who hang around a certain corner in the afternoons playing guitar and call themselves a ‘gang’ mainly for image reasons while others have a clear criminal intent. I will take the ‘gang’ term to mean those groups which are either potentially or actively involved in acts of violence and/or criminal activities. In some cases the line between criminal and licit activities is often a rather fuzzy one, especially in determining in how far these often neighbourhood-based groups provide ‘privatised’ security services for their neighbourhood and where this could be classified as extortion.

Veterans’ organisations

Previous to the 2006 crisis, one of the major sources of potential instability were the veterans’ organisations, which consisted of disenchanted former Falintil fighters and members of the clandestine opposition movement who felt marginalised by the way the DDR-process was being carried out. These groups include the Sagrada Familia, CPD-RDTL (Conselho Popular pela Defesa da Republica Democratica de Timor Leste, Popular Defense Committee-Democratic Republic of East Timor ) and SF-75 (Group of Ex-Combatans). They are reported to have connections to various RAGs and MAGs, especially to those with high numbers of former clandestinos and they have been suspected of involvement in several incidences of public unrest in Timor Leste between independence and the 2006 crisis, especially the December 2002 riots.

History and Structure

The current wave of violence needs to be seen in the context of the post-conflict situation and how it developed after 1999. While some gangs trace their ancestry to the Portuguese colonial era, and others to the times of the Indonesian occupation, many seem to be more recent creations. Regardless of their historical background, many of the gangs seem to also include former members of the pro-Indonesian militias, ex-Falintil guerrillas and former or current serving members of the security forces (PNTL – police or F-FDTL – armed forces). The widespread disappointment with the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process of the former combatants was also a major factor in the outbreak of violence in 2006.

Many of the groups involved have already had a presence in the districts for quite some time previous to the outbreak of the crisis and had the occasional scuffles, but it seems to me at least that this has been reaching new levels in terms of quantity and quality of the conflicts. Local perceptions vary, with some saying that last year was worse (e.g. in Same), others saying that this year is worse (e.g. in Baucau). Much of this of course has happened and is happening below more or less unbeknownst to those in Dili, let alone those of us on the outside. Many of these conflicts seem to be about other issues, be it longer-standing land issues, private issues or political conflicts, though some seem to be purely about group A fighting group B just because of them being group B and there being nothing else to do.

All of the groups that I talked to denied any east/west sectarianism and most denied the regionalist split being an issue anymore, though the youths in the IDP camps, for obvious reasons, did mention that the east/west-issue was still an open issue for them.


In addition to the above-mentioned community-based security provision/borderline extortion, the violence-prone groups seem to draw most of their income from renting out their ‘security services’ to political parties and other socio-political actors (where the line to ‘mobs-for-hire’ becomes unclear) or through PSCs (Private Security Companies). I believe it is fair to assume that at least some groups are involved in gambling rackets at one level or another.

In addition to the borderline-nature of their economic activities, the lines between the avowed defensive nature of these groups and ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ as well as seeking redress for injustice and plain revenge are also often ill-defined.

Rituals, magic, identity

A very visible but under-researched aspect of the potentially violence-prone groups in Timor Leste is the use of ritual and magic. Many of the above-mentioned gang insignia have a ‘magic’ or ritual meaning and magic amulets (biro) and spells are called upon for supernatural skills and protection before confronting other gangs or the security forces.

The habit of mixing pagan rituals, symbols and beliefs with Catholic influences is also visible in many of the violence-prone groups, especially the RAGs and some veterans’ groups, especially Sagrada Familia. L7, the leader of Sagrada Familia (who is also rumoured to be one of the leaders of 7-7) is purported to have strong magical powers.

The members of the ‘numbers groups,’ i.e. the RAGs with number combinations (e.g. 5-5, 7-7, 9-9) as their names, are supposed to have a corresponding number of scars cut into their arms, allegedly with ‘magic’ powder.

Another RAG, Korka, has developed its own language and alphabet which combines ‘traditional’ Timorese influences with ‘universal’ influences taken from other languages and which is revealed to the members as they advance through the ranks.

The walls of the bairos of Dili have for years been covered with slogans and graffiti. I do not know whether this already occurred during the Portuguese colonial days but at least during the last part of the Indonesian occupation both pro-independence and pro-Indonesian slogans were visible on the walls – not only in Dili but also in other population centres such as Baucau and Liquiça. During the independence years, various kinds of new graffiti kept emerging, often linked to global cultural icons (such as Che Guevara and Bob Marley) and occasionally to gangs, though I for one did not register it at the time. But the writing was, literally, on the wall for those who chose to see it.

With the social, economic, political and quasi-ethnic (or rather: regional) crisis that began unfolding in March 2006, the amount of graffiti has multiplied, often referring to various gangs (thus acting as territorial markers) and at times with a derogatory, anti-‘easterner’ or ‘anti-westerner’ message or with inflammatory political slogans. As the crisis continued, the gang/MAG/RAG identity markers have spread across the country and are now visible even in very remote villages. Apart from the neighbourhood-based gangs, most of the violence-prone groups claim to have a national network and most claim not to discriminate based on regional or political affiliations. Some groups also have cross-border connections, be it to Indonesian groups or to overseas Timorese. On a small-scale, some of the violence has been exported to Indonesia, for example in a case in October 2007 when there was a fight between Timorese student KS and PSHT members in Yogyakarta. In retaliation for this fight, there was a gang-related attack in Baucau the following week.

Thus, amongst the reasons for joining the gangs, MAGs, RAGs or other potentially violence-prone groups are:
- socio-economic concerns (un- or under-employment of members, especially ‘foot soldiers,’ potential economic and social gains through membership),
- political concerns (feeling of disenfranchisement, dissatisfaction with the DDR/SSR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration/security sector reform) processes, disillusionment with political elite, political power through membership)
- personal concerns (added security through membership, possibility of addressing personal grievances, image and identity boost by becoming a gang/MAG/RAG member, overcoming tedium)
The gangs can thus be seen as identity creation vehicles for youth, especially men, caught between tradition and modernity, as vehicles for attaining economic, social and political power for the leaders (many of whom could be classified as middle class) and, taking up a theme from an analysis of PNG (Papua New Guinea) raskol gang structures, as ‘neo-capitalist’ wealth distribution mechanisms.

While the world of the MAGs, RAGs and gangs is mainly one of young men, many groups also have female members, even if the numbers tend to be rather small, especially when it comes to the more hard core activities of the groups. There are even a handful of female gang leaders. The main role of women, however, tends to be as supporters, re-enforcers of and audience for the violent enactments of masculinity of the male members of these groups.


The continuing existence of the IDP camps 1,5 years into the crisis has produced a number of communities which are highly volatile, highly concentrated and highly politicised (in the general sense of the word). Some of the most volatile of these also happen to be in some of the most strategic points of the country: at the international airport, at the main port and the heart of the government district, opposite the UN headquarters and straddling the country’s main road next to the major army base in Metinaro. Official figures put the number of IDPs at approximately 100.000, though some people I spoke to, both nationals and internationals, suspected this number might be inflated.

The coming of the rainy season coupled with delays in replacing the tents have brought tensions to boiling point, tensions which are already inflamed by party political differences in the camps, mutual distrust between the IDPs and the surrounding population (as well as, to a degree, with those providing them with aid), gang rivalries, personal conflicts and the daily stress of camp life which has been going on now for almost 20 months.

Having already been in existence for one-and-a-half years, the IDP camps have started developing into small communities of their own, with their own shops, markets, supply lines, social hierarchies, sometimes even a warung. Those with steady jobs commute to work from the camps while others seek to find temporary jobs in the more informal sectors of the economy. There is a relatively high degree of interaction between the major camps in Dili. There are rumours going around that some of these camps would in fact be turned into permanent settlements.

As the camps have become more established, they have also started becoming incubators for political activity. The daily circumstances of the lives of the IDPs are a constant reminder of the fact that the May 2006 crisis has not been resolved. In spite of the visible presence of Fretilin flags, no one party seems to have been able to unite this politicised populace under its banner. The major, temporary unifying factor so far has been a perceived common outside ‘enemy’ that is seen as a threat to the IDPs in general, such as the ISF in cases where IDPs have been shot or governmental and international agencies which are not seen as delivering aid fast enough.

An interesting aspect about the camps is the very different way they are viewed by those inside the camps and those on the outside. In numerous discussions with Timorese not in the camps, the reason given for why the IDP issue has not been solved yet is simply the laziness of the IDPs: the free rice and cooking oil they receive from the aid agencies is seen as their primary motivation for staying in the camps. Aid agencies, meanwhile, express their concern about the activities of gangs from inside the camps, IDP numbers being inflated for extra rice supplies which are then sold on the black market, prostitution, gambling and protection rackets as well as agitators who urge the people not to leave the camps.

In talking to the IDPs, the picture one gets is quite the opposite: the existence of political conflicts inside the camp, of prostitution or gambling, the presence of gangs and of protection rackets – all are denied. The main reason given for not leaving the camps is the same as 1,5 years ago: they do not feel safe in their old neighbourhoods. As in many other of my interviews with various groups (incl. the gangs and ex-militias), I felt that this perhaps was more a reflection of the image the camp representatives wanted to project of themselves to outsiders and a case of being told what they assumed I wanted to hear rather than a critical analysis of their situation. Of course, it is wholly possible that several different discourses can and do exist simultaneously and in parallel.

Interestingly and very unfortunately, I have not been able to find any research on gender-based violence in the camps. Judging by previous studies in other contexts into the inner workings of refugee/IDP camps, this may well be a very major cause for concern.

Security sector

The security sector remains something of a problem child. Rivalries between the PNTL and F-FDTL are continuing and their respective roles in Timorese society have still to be defined properly. Until that is done, there will be continuous turf wars over who gets to do what, e.g. who is responsible for guarding public buildings, for border security, internal security? The on-going rivalry as to who is responsible for providing internal security is in itself a factor for instability.

The rivalry is worsened by the fact that the institutions themselves are not seen as neutral. Based on my interviews, this seems to apply especially to the PNTL. Apart from the interviewees personal feelings of mistrust, there are some clear indications that the PNTL is, to say the least, not up to its job. The feeling of lack of neutrality becomes manifest for example in the fact that in Uatolari the pro-Fretilin mob was able to burn down a house directly in front of the PNTL/UNPOL post, or the fact that the Baucau PNTL district commander is allegedly a member of the Kera Sakti martial arts group which is battling PSHT (who, on the other hand, apparently count a local PNTL sub-district commander as a member in their ranks) for dominance in the city. The F-FDTL tends to be seen as being less fractured and less connected to gangs but is also seen as being partisan, e.g. in Uatolari where one part of the community trusts the PNTL while the other trusts the F-FDTL to provide their security.

A key problem with the PNTL seems to be that some of its members seem to be moonlighting for the gangs, for political parties, or for other groups which command a higher degree of loyalty than the institution of the national police force. Given that their salary tends to be a meagre 80-90 USD a month, this is not entirely surprising. There are also rumours of members of the Border Patrol Unit being involved in smuggling and illegal logging activities.

A further player in the security sector is the private security companies or PSCs. The major Timorese player in the field is Maubere Security, with strong links to PSHT. Maubere provides the security staff for most major INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) as well as the UN mission. The other major Timorese PSC player, Seprosetil, has been recently been bought up by an American ex-FBI officer and has become APAC (i.e. the name of this private security company), a move which has caused some speculation in Dili. Arguably, many of the gangs are in the ‘private security business’ as well, with the dividing lines between private security, community-based security and extortion being very thin.

The issue of mandatory military service, meanwhile, seems to have been put on the back burner for the moment even though the law, as far as I have understood, has been passed and ratified.

Land conflicts and ‘social jealousy’

As in many other societies, land conflicts are amongst the most intractable ones as they often form the basis of people’s livelihoods. In a society with a history as turbulent as Timor Leste’s a number of factors make the problem even more intractable. There are land claims that go back to Portuguese and Indonesian times, there are the massive forced displacements of a majority of the population in the late 1970s and in 1999 as well as the new problems caused by the displacement of almost a tenth of the population in the wake of the 2006 crisis. In addition to the more formal claims, there is also the issue of unclear traditional (adat) claims to land, made more complicated by the fact that some communities have a patrilineal, others a matrilineal ownership system which complicates inheritance questions in cases of mixed marriages between the communities. Land conflicts (including in the broader sense access to housing, resources or market access) are often a factor in conflicts which take on the surface seem to be political or gang-related disputes.

A further factor in fuelling conflicts which is often mentioned by Timorese themselves is ‘social jealousy’ (often the Indonesian term kecemburuan sosial is used). It is often used as an explanation for the destruction of property, a sort of ‘cutting down to size’ of those who are seen as being better off economically.

‘Private’ violence

With so much of the current debate focusing on the ‘public’ conflicts mentioned above, the ‘private’ conflicts, many of them quotidian, are in danger of being forgotten. Yet it is often these private conflicts which spill over into the public sphere and vice-versa: public conflicts lead to private conflicts as well. In many of the interviews which I conducted relating to the gang violence issue, private conflicts (e.g. revenge for perceived personal slights, fights over girlfriends) were seen as being a major underlying factor in the gang-to-gang violence even though the conflicts are publicly framed in a more political way.

One of the major concerns in Timor Leste has long been gender-based violence (GBV). In spite of continued efforts by national and international NGOs, national authorities, UN agencies and outside donors, GBV levels remain high and the daily UNPOL security briefings often carry rather shocking stories of GBV cases. A direct quote from the UNPOL security briefing of 03.12.2007 drives home the discrepancy between the violence and attempts to address it:

“On Saturday, a 37-year-old man reportedly stabbed a 14-year-old girl at a party in the village of Suai Loro, Covalima, after she rejected his advances. The girl suffered a punctured lung, and was airlifted to Dili hospital by the International Security Forces (ISF). Police identified and arrested the suspect as he was attempting to flee into West Timor the following morning.

Also on Saturday in Tapo Village, Bobonaro, a woman was reported to have been assaulted by two brothers after insulting their parents. The woman is receiving treatment for her injuries in Maliana hospital, and police have arrested the two brothers.

The Campaign to End Violence Against Women is ongoing, and will run until 10 December 2007.”

Strategies of Tension, Kingdom of Fear

As has been said by numerous others before, Timor Leste is a rumour-based society. It is also highly traumatised, given its long history of violent conflict. In their 24-year counter-insurgency campaign, the Indonesian armed forces drew heavily upon lessons learned in other counter-insurgency wars in South-East Asia and Latin America. Especially after the end of major combat operations, the ABRI (Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia; the Indonesian Armed Forces (including the Police) before their split into Military and Police after Suharto’s stepping down) increasingly relied on a ‘strategy of tension,’ to borrow a phrase from Italy’s ‘leaden years’ of the 1960s-70s. Random arrests, public displays of corpses, mysterious ‘ninja’ killings, deliberate spreading of rumours, apparently irrational acts of violence by mobs-for-hire that were trucked in to cities and villages, co-optation and collaboration as well as the emergence of an array of ‘civilian’ paramilitary groups towards the end of the occupation all served to sow distrust and fear within Timorese society. Undoubtedly, the pro-independence clandestine movement used some of these tactics themselves.

Both sides of the current main political conflict, i.e. Fretilin and its detractors, have accused each other repeatedly of actively stoking the violence for their own political benefit. Apart from a few colourful loose cannons such as Leandro Isaac or Rogerio Lobato, though, this is not quite an accurate description. Both sides (the ‘opposition’ when trying to bring down Alkatiri and Fretilin in trying to bring down the AMP government) have played the game much more subtly. No explicit orders to commit acts of violence need necessarily to be given by the leadership. Instead, where there should have been a condemnation of violence there is silence on the issue, which is read by the respective ‘militants’ as tacit approval. Furthermore, the backing of this or that party for a particular group or sub-group threatening or committing acts of violence is almost taken as a given due to historical, political, family or other personal links between the actors which are conventional wisdom in Timorese society but often remain invisible to outside observers.

In a sense, this is a continuation of the ‘strategy of fear’ but of course on a very, very different level from the Indonesian occupation. There are no mass killings, no institutionalised torture, no mass rapes, no disappearances. However, what I feel is often not fully understood by outside observers (including myself) is the degree to which tension, intimidation and violence is felt by the East Timorese but does not register with us as it is below our socio-cultural radar screen. A lot of the lower level tools for keeping up and occasionally ratcheting up the tension are being used, wittingly and unwittingly. These include the announcements of upcoming, potentially violent mass rallies (many of which never materialise), spreading of rumours and propaganda, shows of force by ‘militants’ of one group or the other or public displays of power, e.g. flag raisings. Fear and tension are, however, also perpetuated unwittingly, when people send SMSes to each other warning of possible violence in Bairo X or on Road Y, by rumours of potential violence.

The end result of these acts is a ‘Kingdom of Fear,’ to borrow Hunter S. Thompson’s phrase. Even without joining conspiracy theorists, it can be seen that this is being actively maintained by ‘strategies of tension,’ whether intentional or unintentional. The fear is maintained by intentional acts such as the violence perpetrated by groups against those defined as ‘the other’ with the assumed backing of powerful, unnamed forces and by intentional and unintentional spreading of information on violence, be it true or false.

The degree of, or the perception of fear changes over time, though. An indication of how ‘normalised’ violence has become in Dili these days was the recent almost-beheading of a gang member in downtown Dili. A few months ago, the event would have sparked a complete lockdown in the capital, as would have the other events of the day – major violent incidents in Audian, Pantai Kelapa and Comoro. In the event though, life went on as if nothing had happened. The international media reaction was far greater than the one in Dili, where despite the rumour mill many had not even heard of the incidents.

A possible explanation of this is that the gang violence is now seen as only affecting those involved (including those poor enough to be happening to be living in the hot spots) and thus, though very real and visible, not having the potential of violently affecting ‘average’ peoples’ lives. By contrast, the mere rumour of an alleged ‘ninja’ sighting (= potential, unproven violence that could theoretically affect anyone) on the Same-Maubisse road the night before led to cars not daring to use the road before sunrise. Furthermore, many people have internalised their self-defence mechanisms, which they have been practicing for almost 2 years now (e.g. not moving outside after dark, not venturing beyond their immediate neighbourhood) that perhaps they feel (erroneously?) safe as long as they do not deviate from these patterns but are extremely fearful of going beyond these patterns.

Justisia, Unidade no Paz?

When I have asked the people that I interviewed both in Timor Leste and in West Timor as to what would, in their mind, be needed for the crisis to be solved, the answers were surprisingly similar regardless of the background of the interviewee: the preconditions for peace were the re-establishment of national unity and that justice had to be done. The slogans of ‘Timor Ida Deit’ and ‘Justisia, Unidade no Paz’ are thus more than empty political phrases but reflections of desires which cross the various fault lines that exist in Timorese society. Therefore, there seems to be a strong basis upon which to start a reconciliation process and begin resolving some of the many conflicts in a constructive manner.

Also, the widespread support, regardless of geographical, class or political background, for ‘One Timor (Leste)’ and for ‘Unity’ also serve to contradict the argument which is still occasionally heard that the country is essentially divided into two quasi-ethnic blocs, ‘East’ vs. ‘West.’ While the loro monu vs. loro sa’e issue cannot be discounted as being completely irrelevant (even though it has almost completely disappeared from the East Timorese political discourse), the overarching, defining but rather vague identity is that of ‘Timoreseness,’ of belonging to one nation. It was the implicit questioning of the ‘real Timoreseness’ of the westerners which fanned the flames of the ‘east/west’ conflict last year, not the existence of a loro monu or loro sa’e identity that was stronger than the Timorese identity and challenging the sense of belonging to the nation.

The east/west-issue therefore also highlights the whole problem with Justice, Unity and Peace. The slogan is one which more or less anyone can accept. The question however is who defines what justice, national unity and peace mean. What is the justice that people are calling for? And for whom? On whose terms? Is it economic and social justice? An end to impunity? Revenge and payback? Reconciliation? A forgive-and-forget approach?

The issue of national unity is no less tricky. For a small and troubled society such as Timor Leste, a common sense of purpose is essential for the solving of the problems it is facing. The main problem is however that the issue of national unity is seen by many actors (especially in the field of party politics) as an absolute, moreover an absolute defined by themselves with little or no room for compromise: in the ideal case the whole nation will unify under my banner and we shall build our One Timor. Those who do not subscribe to my vision are traitors, terrorists or, even worse, communists.

On occasion, these ideas of national unity are linked to calls for a return to ‘traditional Timorese’ values as the basis for the nation. While I am more than sympathetic to the idea of adopting local solutions rather than imposing imported models, I do see some serious problems with this neo-traditionalist approach. The first question that arises is who defines what is traditional and what is not? Would, for example, the focus be more on Catholic or pre-Catholic values? How would the different approaches of patrilineal and matrilineal communities be accommodated, especially in the case of mixed communities? How will this impact on politically and socially marginalised groups? How will minority rights be respected? And above all, what, after the 450 years of colonial rule; of 24 cataclysmic years of mass killings, massive displacement, Indonesianisation and modernisation; of 8 years of massive exposure to the outside world via the international presence and the return of exiles – what is truly, ‘authentically’ traditional Timorese?

Though Timor Leste is a small nation, it has a wide variety of differences, be they ethno-linguistic, economic, regional or class differences. An acceptance of this variety and plurality, of the creole nature of much of the culture, of a history of interaction with various outside forces and of still existing local traditions could perhaps be a more fruitful approach than a narrow neo-traditionalism.

Conclusion: Waiting for the next turn of events

The pieces of the East Timorese kaleidoscope have temporarily come to a rest following the latest turn of events in the aftermath of the announcement of the AMP government in August 2007. The various pieces, the conflicts, remain however, and have for the most part not been solved. In many cases, there seems to be reluctance on the part of key actors (national and international) to take responsibility for the conflicts, let alone take responsibility for solving them. The situation has, for the moment, got better but the underlying tensions have not been addressed.

Even without the conflicts, Timor Leste is facing major socio-economic and political challenges. Procrastination in solving the key conflicts, which are paralysing the country, will only make finding solutions to these major challenges even more difficult.

In spite of the plethora of challenges which East Timorese society is facing, there are numerous social and cultural structures which can be built upon, such as the strong social networks, traditions and a strong, if contested, sense of belonging to ‘One Timor.’ The key to success lies with Timorese society itself. <>

1 The term ‘militant’ is used in the Timorese context quite liberally to cover peaceful activists as well, e.g. a ‘militant’ of an NGO, of a political party, etc., thus not necessarily having the same violent overtones it tends to have in other contexts.

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