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Keeping the peace in East Timor

Jakarta Globe - August 3, 2011

Cherie Hart – Long-running violence in a district just outside East Timor's capital ended last week with a dance, a prayer, a speech and the sacrifice of a goat and a pig.

For years, rival youth groups of two communities in the hilly subdistrict of Metinaro, not far from Dili, fought fiercely over land issues. Nothing, it seemed, could put an end to their aggression – until now.

A ceremony, known locally as Tara Bandu, brought villagers together to make a communal promise. Nearly three dozen members of three rival martial arts groups and elderly representatives from two villages signed a document pledging to respect the environment, cease using violence to solve their disputes, stop trying to occupy each other's land and end hunting in protected areas. More than 500 villagers witnessed this traditional ritual that ended with an animal sacrifice to seal the deal.

"We talk about democracy, but we forget how to respect each other," said Adao de Araujo, Metinaro district administrator. "We have now found a way to love our community and stop violence."

This celebration of peace marked the culmination of a three-month "community dialogue mediation" that combined formal negotiation techniques with informal and traditional methods of dispute resolution. The United Nations Development Program has been working with the East Timor government to strengthen its ability to keep these kinds of local disputes from turning into larger conflicts.

"The Tara Bandu shows how far Timor-Leste as a country has come in dealing with conflict," UNDP country director Mikiko Tanaka said, referring to the official name for the nation. "The Timor-Leste dialogue and Tara Bandu for peace is unique in that it combines local cultural customs and more modern mediation methods."

A $3-million UNDP program recently provided technical and financial assistance to create the Department of Peace-Building and Social Cohesion within the Ministry of Social Solidarity and train national mediators in the districts of Ermera, Dili and Baucau. This new government department for peace-building intends to intervene in local disputes when they turn violent and villagers are unable to reach agreements on their own.

Training is also offered for community and traditional leaders, council members and in dialogue facilitation and mediation. Some of these newly trained mediators helped resolve the Metinaro dispute.

Martial arts clubs, often accused of being breeding grounds for gangs, are an important social grouping in East Timor, where unemployment is high, and nearly 80 percent of the population is under 25.

"We have to create peace, unity and stability," said Felix Rodrigues, a representative from one of the martial arts groups that signed the pledge. "Future problems cannot be solved with violence, but instead we have to bring them to local authorities to find our own solutions."

Sources of conflict remain in East Timor's communities, sometimes as residual resentment from a 2006 national crisis that stemmed from grievances within the police and military. The two-year conflict, which was loosely based on regional lines, caused more than 150,000 people to flee from their homes and take up residence in 65 camps scattered throughout Dili and the districts.

As they moved back to their homes, antipathy developed toward the returnees, as did disputes over land and property, rivalries among martial arts groups, political and regional divisions, and disquiet among the large ranks of unemployed.

Recognizing that building peace and social cohesion takes time, the Ministry of Social Solidarity decided to establish the Department of Peace-Building and Social Cohesion. The ceremony in Metinaro marked the third local conflict that reached a resolution through assistance from the new department, which was set up in December.

As East Timor prepares for national elections and the exit of the UN peacekeeping mission next year, sustaining peace is all the more important in this young country.