Dili – Young people from around the world gathered this week in East Timor to participate in a conference to share ideas on identity, conflict and peace as the country, one of the most at-risk nations in Asia, tries to come to terms with long-standing violence in its society.
Talks at the Youth, Identity and Nation-Building conference began Thursday with its launch by the president of the parliament, followed by a traditional war dance.
As cameras across the auditorium flashed, a dozen young, muscled, bare-chested men in sarongs locked arms, brandished steel blades and stomped to a furious drum beat before the international audience. An hour later, that same audience broke into groups and set to brainstorming ways to prevent violence.
If anyone found the juxtaposition ironic, no one mentioned it. But violence and those who practice it have always had a place in Timor, and few people are ever shunned for their violent acts.
Take, for example, Osorio Lequi. These days, Lequi, 28, is an advocate for youth peace, but he is also the spokesman for a youth gang, Kolimo 2000, with which he has a long, violent history.
In 2002, Lequi was imprisoned for eight months for his part in the fatal beating of a man during a gang attack, and on April 28, 2006, Lequi led vicious verbal attacks against the government. That morning, Lequi predicted a war against the state, and later that afternoon, an angry young mob attacked the Government Palace, burning cars and smashing windows.
It was the flashpoint for a wave of arson and murder across the nation that left dozens dead and more than 100,000 homeless and from which the nation still has not fully recovered. Timorese who fled their homes two years ago still live in tents, and foreign troops patrol the South-East Asian nation.
But Lequi was calm Thursday as he led a presentation about youth identity in East Timor. In his presentation, Lequi argued a nation's past will influence its future and, unless past injustices are resolved, they will be repeated.
Yet even as East Timor looks for solutions to youth violence, it has done nothing to punish Lequi or his group.
"My name was given to various inquiry reports," he admitted. "They say I provoked the situation, that I was the leader of the demonstration, and as a civilian, I am ready to face the judicial process."
But Lequi admitted justice is hard to come by in East Timor, which saw a brutal, 24-year Indonesian occupation before three violence-plagued years leading to its independence in 2002. He said he expected his country, one of the poorest in Asia, to be wracked by violence again and again until there is more social equity.
Lequi might seem an odd choice to advocate peace, but he has intimate knowledge of youth violence. "What happened in 2006 was just a continuation of the youth's struggle for justice in Timor," he said. "It's not resolved. Not at all."
And Lequi was not alone Thursday in his gloomy predictions. Narges Nemat is a first-year university student from Afghanistan. She said she is majoring in science although the war in her country has made even the most basic science supplies scarce. She said she dreams of a country free of violence, kidnappings and war but is realistic.
"I don't know if it's possible if we will ever have a free country," she said. "Maybe after 50 or 60 years. It will take time."
Nemat said she is the only Afghan at the youth conference and she came because she wanted to compare East Timor to Afghanistan. She said the roads and the buildings in East Timor are untouched by war, but otherwise much is the same there as in her country.
"I talked with one student here, and he told me the one thing the students are really not happy with is the government right now," she said.
Whether a three-day youth conference would be enough to assuage doubts or inspire hope is up for debate, but Nemat said she was more hopeful than Lequi.
"There are so many other young people from all over the world, and everyone has different ideas," she said. "I want to see if I can find a good idea for my own country."
The conference brought together more than 300 Timorese youth and 43 youngsters from 26 other countries, including Sri Lanka, South American nations, the United States and Norway. It was sponsored by East Timor's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian embassy and organized by Timorese youth activists.