Subject: No work in Timor-Leste

No work in Timor-Leste

Guardian Weekly

No work in Timor-Leste

Wednesday December 17th 2008

With 25% of Timor’s population aged 15 to 29, competition for jobs is stiff. Meanwhile, the soaring popularity of martial arts threatens conflict in the future, writes Matt Crook

Wednesday December 17th 2008

For the past six years Jose da Silva, 20, has lived in a small youth camp in Dili. His mother is dead and his ­father works in Indonesia: "I consider the people here as my family now," he says. He goes to high school three days a week and hopes to go to university. "My ambition is to be a pilot."

Timor-Leste celebrated National Youth Day last month at the same time as it commemorated the Santa Cruz Massacre, in which at least 250 Timorese demonstrators were shot dead by Indonesian soldiers in 1991. Representatives from 26 countries and young people from Timor gathered in Dili for a conference.

East Timor became independent in 2002, and the young – from 15 to 29 – are growing up with the country. Four years of economic growth was destroyed when opposing factions in the Timorese military clashed in 2006, leading to violence in Dili and the displacement of up to 150,000 people. While the country is being rebuilt, young people face domestic violence, alcohol abuse, gangs, unemployment, poor education, poverty and an official language – Portuguese – that few ­actually speak.

"I want to continue to study," Da Silva says, "but the problem is that without my parents here I have ­nobody to support me." With 25% of Timor’s 1-million-plus population aged 15 to 29, competition for jobs is stiff. Romanto Luis, 25, left his home district to complete his education in Dili and then stayed there in the hope of finding work. He studied engineering and graduated from university in 2006. "When I finished studying I looked for a job, but I couldn’t find any. I want to work as a mechanic."

Timor has one of the fastest-growing populations on earth, at an annual 5%. Each year, Timor’s formal sector creates 400 jobs but up to 15,000 young Timorese enter the labour market. According to the 2004 census, unemployment in Dili was 23%, rising to 42% among those aged 20-24.

Most Timorese make a living outside the oil sector, and yet oil and gas revenues account for 95% of the government’s income. (Consumer prices have increased 13% since 2006.) The country has oil wealth that will swell to $4bn this year, yet the young must wait until their government can effectively spend its Petroleum Fund, which was established to provide a permanent income for government budgets and ensure money for future generations. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao said: "Our challenge now is not lack of resources, but lack of capacity to use our existing resources."

The secretary of state for youth and sport, Miguel Manetulu, said initiatives include sending youths to work in Korea, and recruitment drives for the oil sector. "The problem is that our young people do not have sufficient qualifications to compete in many jobs. It is the responsibility of the government to provide more training."

Fewer than 50% of all children reach grade six in school, only about 12% complete secondary education and 20% reach adulthood with no formal education. Many of those who finish some formal education are ill-equipped to enter the workforce, since Timor’s tertiary-education institutions are unregulated and are producing people with high expectations but little capacity to work.

Many youth groups took part in the 2006 crisis and the unemployed young are now attracted to martial arts groups. Manetulu said the government must show "how to make these groups develop themselves" so that they "can contribute to the development of the country". Augusto Soares works at World Vision, focusing on youth development and peace building. "[Young people] turn to gangs because they feel like the group can protect them if they face problems. The gangs have stopped fighting so much since March, but in 2007 and 2006 there was massive conflict ­between the martial arts groups."

The biggest gangs, such as Seven-Seven and PSHT, have anything up to 50,000 members, and about 65% of youths in Timor are affiliated with a group. Negotiations between rival groups and increased police presence around Dili recently have helped keep the peace.

Aniceto Neves is part of the HAK Association, which works on social programmes. In September 2007, HAK brought together leaders from nine of Timor’s 18 main martial arts groups for a peace-building programme. He says these organisations "have potential to be transformed into peace-building agents rather than considered as conflict potential".

Ozorio Leque is leader of the Colimau 2000 martial arts group, established in 1987 as a response to the Timorese struggle for independence. He took part in the violence of 2006, but now says: "We realise that violence brings more suffering to the people, so we are showing our willingness to be unified to find common ground to build our nation."

With little to keep them occupied, many young people in Timor ­develop destructive habits. Soares says World Vision sees alcohol as "a big problem". Local wine, brandy and whisky are readily available, unregulated and cheap and the government has been slow to react to the problem.

For some, the realities of home life can drive them into isolation. "There is so much domestic violence because our grandmothers and grandfathers used violence to discipline our parents, and our parents continue to do the same. Most of the parents aren’t mature enough to have children so when they have problems they are directed at the children," says Soares.

Language is another barrier. The government chose Portuguese as the official language despite most people’s mother tongues being either Tetun or Bahasa. Tetun is a simple language limited by its lack of grammar and tenses. Only about 10% of people in Timor speak Portuguese.

The government has access to a huge pot of money, but most Timorese people won’t feel its benefit until the public service sector is better equipped to cope with spending that money for the good of the country.

Chiquito da Costa, 29, lives in Dili in a simple brick house with a tin roof. He and his wife wonder what kind of world their 11-month-old daughter will see in the future. "Our country is still new. It is just beginning to grow up," he says.


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