Subject: IPS: Keeping Youth Off Political Violence

EAST TIMOR: Keeping Youth Off Political Violence

By Abdou Fabregas

DILI, Aug 28 (IPS) - Once a month, 24-year-old Emilia Soares scours the streets of her neighbourhood persuading youth to attend a local assembly. She is a youth leader in Suco Bidau Santana, a residential area in the east of the capital and one of the rare ones who escaped the civil strife of the last few years.

''We try to work together with the local authorities to bring some harmony to our neighbourhood. It is important for us to find comprehensive solutions, because the problems faced by young people have repercussions on the entire community," she says.

Soares' assembly, which brings together young people between 15-30 years, meets to assess the needs and concerns of young people and find ways to enhance living standards in the neighbourhood.

"It is important for us to identify and discuss specific problems encountered by the youth, because it shows that we are committed to the well being of our community. Not all young people are trouble makers, although this is the kind of message that the media keeps suggesting,'' she said.

Since 2006, when a dispute within the Timorese armed forces evolved into a national crisis, Timorese youth have been repeatedly accused of being closely involved in the regular outbursts of violence, arson and the civil unrest.

Communal strife in April had left close to 40 people dead and rendered more than 150,000 homeless amid conditions of food shortages and deprivation.

The latest outburst of violence on Aug. 23 left at least two people dead according to the United Nations which maintains a police force in East Timor backed by Australia-led peacekeeping troops. The trouble was sparked by the appointment of Xanana Gusmao as prime minister heading a three-party coalition, following the inconclusive elections held two months ago.

Most of the rioters were said to be supporters of Fretilin, East Timor's largest party which has been excluded from government for the first time after this nation of one million people won independence from Indonesia five years ago. Fretilin claimed most of the votes in the Jun. 30 elections and its supporters have declared the appointment of Gusmao by President Jose Ramos Horta as unconstitutional.

International troops have been deployed in East Timor since fighting first broke out between the eastern and western regions in May 2006. Supposedly manipulated by political parties, martial arts groups and local gangs, many young people are said to have been involved in incidents of house burning, stone throwing and looting.

Violence, that has been a feature of life in East Timor since this former Portuguese colony voted for independence from Indonesian rule in 1999, is said to have affected the youth of the country worst.

''The youth did not create the crisis. They barely followed the political parties," said Soares. "We should all understand that we (the youth) represent the future of our country and that we can play an important role in the peace process."

Like Soares, many think that the division of the country and the subsequent crisis were authored by the political parties and government which mishandled the initial dispute within the armed forces and fought over personal grudges.

In July 2007, the British non-governmental organisation (NGO) Plan International released a report 'Youth Perspectives on the Crisis in Timor-Leste.' It states that only 10 - 25 percent of the young people in Dili were actually involved in the hostilities of 2006.

Unfortunately, the crisis has had a serious impact on young people. In the capital as well as in the 12 remaining districts, schooling was interrupted, and many students had to leave their homes and neighbourhoods to flee the violence. The insecurity and the civil disorder contributed to a feeling among young people that they were being let down by their leaders.

The NGO report contained testimonies indicating that Timorese youth felt excluded from decision-making processes. To remedy this, national and international NGOs are actively promoting the participation of young people in peace building and development process.

East Timor's leading national NGO Timor Aid manages several projects related to youth civic education. The objective is to empower young people to become active citizens.

Francisco Gonzaga, 35, is Timor Aid's project manager for the Civic Education Curriculum Development Project which aims to develop a unified civic education system for East Timor. He explains how NGOs around the country try to get the youth involved in the reconstruction process.

"East Timor is a country of the youth. The median age of our population is only 18.3. Therefore, it is good news that several NGOs are already working with school children and listening to the opinions of young people. If we don't want the same kind of crisis to happen again, it is important to listen to the youth and provide them with a decent education, to teach them citizenship,'' Gonzaga said.

Education is a recurrent problem in a country like East Timor, where, according to the 2004 national census, 54.2 percent of the total population is illiterate and only 15.3 percent attends secondary school.

Sister Marisa Pusmen, a 40-year-old missionary nun who works at Becora's primary school, east of Dili, stresses the importance of education to give young people a proper background and direction.

"Education is vital for the future of this country. School can serve to reinforce bonds within and outside the communities. The problem is that in the reality, many families don't have enough money to pay the school fee. As a matter of fact, only a few students attend secondary school and even fewer manage to reach university."


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