Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Martial Arts War

In East Timor, the native martial art Pencak Silat is very popular. It is taught and practiced in many organizations including political parties and criminal gangs. The friction between these groups has reached a point where the government has sought to outlaw their own native martial art!

Below in an excerpt from an article at Kung Fu Tea, where the author examines the current situation in East Timor, but also examines parallels during some periods in China's past. The full post may be read here.


Earlier this week an unexpected story started to make the rounds of various internet news outlets.  Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao of Timor Leste (East Timor) issued a proclamation banning the practice of Pencak Silat, an indigenous martial art that is wildly popular throughout the region.  The actual news story and press release leave many unanswered questions.  Which of Timor’s notorious martial arts gangs in particular are actually being banned?  Who gets to define “Silat” in what can only be described as a very complicated martial arts community?  Other disciplines, such as Akido, Kung Fu, Judo and Tae Kwon Do appear to be unaffected by the new law.  But a pretty wide range of South East Asian arts will likely be affected by this legislation.

In addition to banning the public assembly and teaching of these arts the current law seeks to outlaw their actual practice all together.  The police have issued warnings against individuals who still practice in their own homes at night.  Of course the police and security forces are an important part of this story.  Many individuals from these agencies were leaders of various Silat groups, and are now under standing orders to either abandon their private practices or resign their commissions.  In a country facing chronic unemployment, and where public sector jobs are critical to the local economy, this is a potent threat. 

So how did events in East Timor get to this point?  More importantly, what can we learn from this local crisis about the role of the martial arts in either exacerbating or deterring community violence? 

In the following essay I hope to do two things.  First I will briefly review the background of the current situation in East Timor.  If you are interested in the global impact of the martial arts it’s a fascinating case to think about.  Given its tumultuous recent history the state itself is still somewhat delicate and can only be described as a “post-conflict zone.”  The widespread popularity of the martial arts (by some estimates 70%-90% of young men are involved in these associations) as well as their entanglement with various political parties, security forces, organized crime syndicates and street gangs has made what was a delicate system downright volatile.  When describing the situation in East Timor after 2006 UN peacekeepers and diplomats routinely used the phrase “Martial Arts War.” 

Secondly, I would like to argue that while the current situation in Dili represents an extreme case of what can happen when the martial arts become part of the local political scene and economy of violence, it is far from isolated.  In fact we have already seen similar episodes to this at many points in Chinese history.  Robinson, in his groundbreaking book Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven: Rebellion and the Economy of Violence in Mid-Ming China (Hawaii UP, 2001) argues that this sort of situation was basically how China operated on a day to day basis throughout the late imperial period.

By understanding how post-conflict societies create situations in which individuals turn to independent (often violent) organizations for a sense of identity, physical and economic security we might be able to speculate about why we see the immense bursts of creativity in the Chinese martial arts occurring when they do.  Shaolin Boxing rose to prominence only after the Ming-Qing transition, not before or during it.  Taiji emerged into the broader regional consciousness in the wake of the Nien and Taiping Rebellions, not before them.  Likewise the periods following the disruptive conflicts of 1911 and WWII saw the creation of many arts that are still with us today.  Taking a closer look at how the current crisis emerged in East Timor might help us to start to understand some broader trends in the field of Chinese martial history as well.

For most western audiences a lecture about how the martial arts are not to be used for brawling in the streets would be somewhat redundant.  Very few of the students who I have ever taught seemed like the “brawling type.”  Most western students, even those who have never studied before, approach the traditional fighting style with a certain amount of culturally inherited baggage.  Most of this probably comes from the media, and you never quite know which ideas or images your new students will show up with.  But almost universally the Asian fighting systems are revered as “peaceful arts” with all sorts of deep esoteric and spiritual truths.  We don’t really ever thing of the martial arts a route to literally seizing power in the local community.

It is worth noting that attitudes towards the martial arts are fairly different in East Timor, to say nothing of 18th and early 19th century China.  I don’t think that either of these groups would totally disavow the “character building” or “spiritual” qualities of the martial arts.  There is no reason to assume that the missionary account of the incense burning is an exaggeration.  Indeed that sort of “religious” observance was central to the creation of any sort of community in imperial China.  

Likewise many martial arts groups in East Timor today promote esoteric and shamanistic rituals (even though the country in 97% Roman Catholic) as a way building identity and group loyalty. 

Yet at the end of the day there can be no doubt that for both of these groups concrete questions of “community security” came first, with “economic profit” being a close second.  Young men have joined these sorts of martial arts associations precisely because they were a way of getting ahead in a world that typically offered few viable employment opportunities.

Martial arts gangs have long been a fact of life, and tool of governance, in Timor Leste.  When the Portuguese ruled the territory they relied on gangs of young violent local men as enforcers to accomplish a variety of tasks.  During the period of Indonesian occupation the situation was systematized and vastly expanded.  Indonesia expressly promoted and supported athletic programs as a means by which the state could influence and exercise some degree of control over society.  They created all sorts of programs in both Indonesia and East Timor, but paid special attention to the martial arts.  Pencak Silat was seen as a means of indoctrinating the youth (much as Judo, Karate, Wushu and Tae Kwon Do were in their respective homelands).  Resources were poured into these programs, which became near universal in scope.  Of course once the bid for independence picked up the same martial arts associations became breeding grounds for violent resistance. 

Nor did these martial arts associations and programs simply vanish after independence.  Increasingly young people started to vent their frustration about lack of employment and educational opportunities.  They joined private martial arts organizations in massive numbers.  In 2008 over 20,000 young men were formally registered as students in one of the martial arts systems.  

Independent researchers and NGO’s estimate another 70,000 youth joined these groups but refused to register with the government.  It seems safe to assume that by 2008 between 70% and 90% of all of the young men in the country were active members of the various martial arts societies.
Far fewer females joined these groups, though there are some notable exceptions.  One of the largest martial arts clubs in Timor (Kera Sakti) boasts that over 38% of their membership is female.  Yet for most groups the figure seems to be closer to 5%. 

For many of East Timor’s youth these martial arts associations represent both a safety net and the promise of social relevance in a society that seems to have otherwise forgotten them.  Membership in a traditional fighting group offers an important sense of belonging, identity and purpose.  Often entire villages, political parties or ethnic enclaves will be members of a single association.  At the same time these clubs also offer concrete guarantees of personal and community safety.  Occasionally they became a critical source of patronage with jobs in private or public security forces being channeled to school members.  They may also provide a chance to network with other more successful individuals.

A number of researchers have pointed out that East Timor’s society, shaped by decades of conflict, has a relatively rigid social structure.  Goods and services are often distributed in a top down manner, and loyal is expected to flow from the bottom up.  In this environment the major martial arts associations were quickly co-opted by political parties, while smaller classes and clubs might be led by individuals in the military or police forces.  Members of the underground criminal economy also built contacts in the martial arts world. 

This highly integrated social structure became a problem in 2006.  In that year the government fired roughly 800 military personal (all from the same geographic area) after they went on strike.  They were unhappy that soldiers from the other main ethnic and geographic groups were monopolizing the lion’s share of the pay raises and promotions.  This conflict within the military led to the collapse of East Timor’s army and police forces.  That was followed by widespread rioting and community violence around the country.

During this period various political parties and individuals in the security sector used martial arts associations to carry out attacks on their enemies, or in attempts to seize control of important markets and trade routes.  The end results of this campaign were surprisingly violent.  Large numbers of people were injured or died in the rioting.  Entire neighborhoods and villages were burned to the ground.  The UN estimates that 100,000 people (roughly 10% of the state’s entire population) were left as destitute internal refuges as a result of this violence.  Nor did the repeated rounds of explosions and reprisal do anything to help the nation’s faltering economy or declining respect for the rule of law.

United Nations peacekeepers and personal were requested at this point and were sent in large numbers.  Foreign police and military officers then took on the burden of restoring order and putting down the “martial arts war” as some of them took to calling it.  Of course the intrusion of large numbers of outside security personal can have complex effects on a situation such as this.  Other NGO’s and humanitarian groups also sent teams to attempt to deal with the deteriorating community security situation.  Jackie Chan’s visit to the capital in 2008 was part of this effort.

A number of different strategies were adopted to deal with the situation.  Simply banning the martial arts was not the governments’ first choice, though there had been high level discussions of that possibility since 2006.  Various efforts were employed to create new national martial arts legislation, new associations that would promote communication and cooperation and various conflict resolution programs were put in place. [link]  Yet, as recent reports indicate, none of these efforts have been totally successful.  In fact there have continued to be killings and hundreds of injuries between these groups in the past few years.

I am not a South East Asia expert, nor do I have any special contacts on the ground.  The English language news reports do not really give much indication of what triggered the latest clampdown.  Indeed, the overall level of violence seems to be down from its peak, though it has proved to be a stubborn problem.

Yet is this really a problem with a solution?  As other researchers and NGO’s have pointed out, most of the martial arts clubs are at heart athletic associations.  Very few of them are actually criminal gangs.  The problem is that these associations have been penetrated by other political, economic, ethnic and criminal interest in society.  These forces then use them to carry out proxy battles.  Given the highly divided nature of local society (where ethnicity, political party, patronage networks and geographic divides tend to line up rather than cross-cut one another) there is not much social inertia to stop these conflicts when leaders decide to start them.

Should we really blame the martial arts societies for Timor Leste’s ill’s.  Probably not.  Or more precisely, we should not blame them in isolation.  There can be no doubt that they have accelerated the overall level of violence, but they also seem to reflect preexisting social cleavages and conflicts to a high degree.  Powerful people who did not trust the state cultivated these patronage networks of angry young men to back their positions.  And when they neglected these groups they simply found other ways to satisfy their economic goals, often to the chagrin of their ostensible masters.

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