Conflict-prevention group plays a key role in a tiny Southeast Asian nation

Troubled East Timor has endured a rocky road to independence. The group Belun ('friend') is trying to forge common ground and ease tensions among  factions.

Courtesy of Simon Roughneen
Elle Sette (L7) is a former member of parliament in East Timor and leader of a murky clandestine group called Sagrada Familia. But he's also played peacemaker in helping to settle disputes.

With his black waistcoat over a denim shirt, Cornelio Gama wouldn't look out place perched on a high stool, a guitar hung from his shoulders, crooning through an ornate mustache.
 
But the man better known as Elle Sette (L7), a former member of parliament in East Timor and leader of a murky clandestine group called Sagrada Familia, had just come home from a peacemaking mission at the University of Dili in the country's capital.
 
"There is a dispute between the rector and the students," he says, "so I went there to try and resolve."
 
Peacemaker for a morning, Gama and his brother Paulino, better known as Mauk Moruk, are in fact at odds with the East Timor government. Since January, Mauk Moruk and his supporters, who regard the government as illegitimate, have fought with police in Laga in the east of East Timor, a tiny country of 1.2 million people. An hour's flight north of Australia, this tiny half island state is only a fifth the area of Ireland, a dot surrounded by the 3,000-mile-wide, 13,000-island Indonesian archipelago.
 
The dispute dates back to the 1980s, when Xanana Gusmão purged Mauk Moruk from the leadership of East Timor's resistance against Indonesia's 1974-99 occupation.
 
The post-independence report by the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR), the key historical record of the 1975-99 era, estimated that there were between 102,800 and 183,000 deaths during related to the occupation at that time. Then, when East Timorese voted to leave Indonesia in 1999, pro-Jakarta mobs destroyed most of the country's infrastructure in a blaze of spiteful vandalism.
 
Mr. Gusmão, elected East Timor's prime minister in 2007, stepped down in February, handing the post over to former health minister Rui Araujo. That has not mollified Mauk Moruk or L7, however. "They should have chosen a new government through an election," L7 says.
 
The latest standoff has caught the attention of Belun (which means "friend" in Tetun, the Timorese national language), a conflict-prevention-focused organization with a presence all over East Timor's often hard to reach rural areas, where cratered roads wind precariously up steep hills to isolated villages.
 
When fighting broke out in January between Mauk Moruk's gang and police, it was not a big surprise to Belun, says Maria Marilia Oliveira da Costa, manager of Belun's "early warning, early response" program.
 
Belun has monitored the situation "since last year, since Mauk Moruk went to Laga," Ms. da Costa says.
 
Since the standoff began, Belun has been talking to people in Laga, trying to forge some common ground and ease tensions in the community. "We went to see the community and the get their view on the situation; we try to create some activity to make dialogue," da Costa explains.
 
Belun has been doing this kind of work for a decade in what is a new country, gaining independence just two years before Belun was established in 2004.
 
Timorese were divided before independence – between those who wanted freedom and those who thought the tiny nation should be officially recognized as part of Indonesia. Post independence, those animosities sometimes resonate, with a near civil war in 2006 when factions in the police and army fought each other, pushing a 10th of the country's population into refugee camps.
 
As noted in "After the Buffaloes Clash," a new study of East Timor published by the Overseas Development Institute, even though "East Timorese groups became united in their fight against occupation, personal grudges and ideological divides existed between them, many of which continue to resonate in the political settlement today."
 
It means that Belun must constantly be on the lookout for potential disputes, whether they are between old political rivalries, police and some of the country's dozens of martial arts gangs, or farmers disputing land or grazing rights.

Belun's work has been widely lauded, described in some quarters as outstanding.
 
"Belun’s approach is unique in the way it empowers Timorese leaders and community members to use its human security monitoring data to design tailored conflict-prevention strategies," says Sarah Dewhurst, co-author of "After the Buffaloes Clash." 

"We try to engage local leaders, xefes de sucos [elected village leaders], and use customary or traditional systems for solving disputes," da Costa says.
 
Indeed, elected village leaders are allowed by law to mediate local disputes where there is no criminal charge filed. A good thing, too, since the police are not popular in parts of East Timor, particularly in the east where they have faced off with Mauk Moruk in recent weeks.
 
Belun is now working to categorize the various disputes it sees, even if it is just drunks at a wedding party raising fists over a pretty girl.
 
In a country whose civil service is often described as understaffed, Belun can fill a much needed gap. "The government wants our report on the land disputes," da Costa says. "Other ministers want information on young people fighting, as does UNICEF."

But for now Belun is likely to be occupied with the ongoing standoff in Laga. L7 wants a high-powered delegation, comprising Gusmão, East Timor President Taur Matan Ruak, and Lere Anan Timor, the army chief, to visit his brother in Laga.

Sarah Dewhurst suggests that the government "support a reconciliatory approach to Mauk Moruk through behind-closed-doors mediation rather than treating him as a public security threat. "
 
"Moruk's support base is pretty small," says Gordon Peake, author of "Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles, and Secrets from Timor-Leste." "His frothing rhetoric doesn't appear to be stirring too many people up."
 
But, as ever, Belun will be keeping an eye on developments, watching for trouble in Laga and sounding warnings as best it can.

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