Villagers Displaying Traditional Weapons in East Timor.  Source: Wikimedia.
Villagers Displaying Traditional Weapons in East Timor. Source: Wikimedia.


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.


Jackie Chan lead a martial arts demonstration outside of Dili in 2008.  Source:
Jackie Chan lead a martial arts demonstration outside of Dili in 2008. Source:

The Anatomy of a “Martial Arts War.”

Consider the following press reports.  The first was published in the Missionary Herald in the 1820s and is one of the first detailed English language accounts of a martial arts association that I have been able to find.  The second story covers a martial arts rally in East Timor in 2008.  It is worth carefully considering what these two situations have in common.


It is stated to the Emperor that the men who navigate the grain boats up the grand canal, from Che-keang province northward have formed themselves into bands, who practice boxing, cudgeling and the use of various weapons, for the purpose, as they say, of defending themselves against robbers; but really for the purpose of domineering over any person who may thwart their will.  A case is just now under consideration, in which they killed one man, and wounded three others.  They are perfectly organized, and hundreds of them collect, in a moment, at the cry of the captain whom they have appointed over them; and of whom they have made and idol image, which they worship evening and morning.  –Indo-Chinese Gleaner.

The Missionary Herald.  Volume XVII.  December 10th, 1820. Boston: Crocker and Brewster Printers.  P. 198.


Fight for Good, Chan tells Timorese

“Chan, actor and martial arts expert, is visiting East Timor this week, as a goodwill ambassador for the UN children’s fund, Unicef, to talk to youth groups about peace.

Fresh off a helicopter trip to meet young people from outside the capital, Chan led Dili’s martial arts groups in a demonstration of his skills – a small figure in a bright blue T-shirt, surrounded by a crowd of young and curious Timorese. 

But he did not just come to show them some new moves – he also came to talk about the meaning and role of martial arts.

And his message was very simple: “If you use martial arts to help somebody, you’re the hero. If you use martial arts just on the street to fight somebody, even if you win you’re not the hero – you’re nobody.” 

The assembled crowd cheered, but will his message get through to those members of East Timor’s martial arts groups that were involved in the lethal violence here two years ago?”

BBC New.  25th of June, 2008.  By Lucy Williamson, Jakarta.


For 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 American students, even those who have never studied before, approach the traditional fighting style with a certain amount of culturally inherited baggage.  This 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 think 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.  Yet, as recent reports indicate, none of these efforts have been totally successful.  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.  Overall levels of violence seems to be down from the 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.


Pencak Silat is a popular sport in regional competition.  It remains to see how East Timor's ban will effect its efforts in these matches.  Source: Wikimedia.
Pencak Silat is a popular sport in regional competition. It remains to see how East Timor’s ban will effect its efforts in these matches. Source: Wikimedia.

The Market for Violence: Imperial China and Modern Timor Leste

One of the biggest surprises to emerge from a few afternoons of research into this situation is how much it resembles (in structural terms rather than specific details) patterns of community violence that we have already seen and explored in late imperial China.  Indeed, all one would have to do is change the names and map locations and this tragic tale would fit right into Robinson’s discussion of corruption and community violence in the Ming dynasty.

I think the parallels work so nicely because they are based on important structural similarities.  In both cases there is a government full of officials who wish to solve problems (while at the same time sending pork to their home regions), but they cannot rely on the relatively weak apparatus of the state to actually implement their solutions.  In both cases the government simply lacks the resources to support an effective standing army and police force, and so security becomes a scarce commodity.

The natural solution in both cases is for leaders to build patronage networks that are more reliable and better able to “get things done.”  Often this means co-opting exactly the same sorts of malefactors that one might otherwise be opposing.  Then when not paid, or if they start to feel neglected, these networks can go rouge, engaging in corruption, extortion or petty banditry.  Of course this pilfering generally comes at the expense of someone else’s network, and conflicts in vertically oriented societies have a way of escalating out of control.

The East Timor example is interesting as it actually reveals a couple of additional variables that are partially obscured in the Chinese case.  A number of NGO experts have claimed that its local society was particularly vulnerable to this situation because of its recent past. 

Post-conflict societies are likely to be economically depressed.  Yong people face questions of both economic and physical security.  Old identities are in flux and social (and political) institutions have fallen into disrepute.  In this situation individuals find themselves relatively isolated and are easily co-opted by the promise of patronage and minimal security.  The same individuals would likely have a very different set of calculations to make if they had a decent job, a family and they were part of a stable community.

In short we cannot simply blame the current situation on the 2006 riots.  Instead the roots of this problem stretch back to the struggle to throw off the Indonesian occupation.  Timor’s society was still struggling to find its footing when it slipped back into chaos a few years later.

Of course this has important implications for how we think of the martial arts in China.  Obviously China is a much bigger place, and one must think carefully about actual influences that existed in one’s local environment.  Still, it is clear that during the late Qing and Republic eras trauma was not in short supply.  This was a period that saw unimaginable civil wars and rebellions, natural disasters, the disintegration of the state (and any semblance of security in certain areas), foreign imperialism and even invasions.

The great martial arts systems (with a few notable exceptions) did not arise right in the middle of these conflicts.  Instead they tended to cluster just after their resolution.  The generation after the Taiping rebellion saw a number of important innovations in Northern China.  Likewise the periods after the Red Turban Revolt and the 1911 Revolution in the south saw the creations of numerous new and innovative martial arts styles, many of which are still popular today.

It would be possible to point out any number of examples, but the larger point is that each of these “periods of creativity” in the Chinese martial arts seems to correspond to times when individual areas of China became “post-conflict zones.”  Diminished safety nets and resurgent questions about identity seem to have pushed people into new voluntary martial arts organization much like the ones that are described in East Timor.  Eventually the situation returned to normal, and these new movements matured, but often not without the local governor issuing a decree banning the martial arts. 

In fact, I can’t even count how many times the Throne or local governors banned the practice of the martial arts in southern China during the late imperial period.  I must have come across at least a dozen proclamations on the subject.  But when the state is so weak that it must rely in its allies in civil society to carry out its security directives, how effective could any “ban” actually be?  The fact that they had to be repeated so frequently would seem to indicate that they were halfhearted gestures as best.

A Pencak Silat demonstration in Jakarta.  Source: Wikimedia.
A Pencak Silat demonstration in Jakarta. Source: Wikimedia.


This brings us back to the situation in Timor Leste.  Is it really possible to ban the practice of every form of Pencak Silat?  These arts are wildly popular among a segment of the population of the government has already proven that they cannot control.  But wait, it gets better.  In symbolic terms there is nothing that the martial arts seem to love more than “going underground” forming a “secret society” and fighting against “a corrupt government that just doesn’t understand.”  All of these anti-systemic narratives, which give the southern Chinese martial arts their distinctive flavor, are equally available to practitioners in South East Asia.  I suppose that we can thank globalization and the Hong Kong film industry for that.

Once again, I do not claim to be an expert on this region of the world, but on structural grounds alone I doubt that these efforts will ultimately be successful.  If the state was actually strong enough to enforce a ban like this they would not have allowed the gangs to take over in the first place.  And by denouncing these groups you will likely only increase their resolve.  Not only that, certain elements in society are still probably dependent on them to achieve their economic and political goals.  If China really provides any sort of a model for thinking about this situation, I suspect that local Pencak Silat will survive.