Jackie Chan visit highlights Timor's martial arts gangs

Updated: 2008-06-27 14:14

Jackie Chan (left) tries a traditional crown in Dili. A United Nations goodwill visit this week by the kung fu star to East Timor has highlighted concerns over gang violence by "martial arts groups" made up of disaffected youth.[Agencies]

A United Nations goodwill visit this week by kung fu star Jackie Chan to East Timor has highlighted concerns over gang violence by "martial arts groups" made up of disaffected youth.

The visit, organised by UN children's agency UNICEF, aimed to curb a culture of violence among the groups, which have become a magnet for thousands of young people in a country with few jobs and few prospects.

Demonstrating new moves as he met enthusiastic crowds in the capital Dili, Chan urged the country's young martial arts enthusiasts to steer clear of violence and gangs.

"It does not matter what school of martial arts we are from as long as we are united. Training for martial arts helps you to strengthen your eyes, your mind and your body," Chan said Thursday.

"When you have a good body and mind, let's help people. Don't harm them."

Jose Soares Visente, a leader of the Devoted Heart Lotus Brotherhood, a black-clad gang that ambitiously claims 20,000 members, said Chan's message of peace was needed to overcome fighting between the groups.

Set up in 1980 by the Indonesian military, the Brotherhood requires prospective members to slaughter a rooster before being allowed to take part in morning and night time training with sticks, knives and swords.

Several members have been killed in fighting and the group's headquarters burnt down in early 2007, Visente said.

"I hope Jackie Chan's visit will help us to build unity and peace between martial arts groups," he said.

While many groups teach pure martial arts, analysts say some in Dili stray into gang violence that could threaten the stability of the tiny nation.

With unemployment hovering around 50 percent, many young East Timorese from the countryside drift into the gangs in the absence of anything else to do, said George Quinn, an East Timor expert from the Australian National University.

"They are a still quite powerful force on the streets of Dili and it's still an issue ... They're not by any means turning tame," Quinn said.

A big fear is that the martial arts groups could be drawn into political violence similar to 2006, which killed at least 37, or that they could start the fighting themselves.

"It's certainly true that violence in and of itself can start from the gangs," Quinn said.

Started as sports clubs under Indonesia's 1975-1999 military occupation, many martial arts groups quickly moulded into something more closely resembling criminal gangs, Quinn said.

Since formal independence was achieved in 2002, violent martial arts groups have regularly fought over street territory and have been known to be used as muscle by politicians to intimidate opponents, Quinn said.

Rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who led a short-lived insurrection by ex-soldiers until he was killed in February during an attack on President Jose Ramos-Horta, was also backed by some Dili martial arts group, he said.

Others are drawn from the nearly 100,000 internally displaced people left over from violence between police and armed forces in 2006 triggered by the defection of Reinado and his men, he said.