Timor-Leste bans martial arts, citing an increase in violence — but trainers and advocates are fighting back

Timor-Leste bans martial arts, citing an increase in violence — but trainers and advocates are fighting back
  • PublishedMay 10, 2024

Geovania Miranda Lopes Pinto got into martial arts for one reason.

“I wanted to learn how to defend myself if someone tries to attack me,” she said.

The ABC caught up with Ms Lopes Pinto, 16, from Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, during one of her training sessions late last year. 

Manoeuvring around an obstacle course and delivering high kicks at will, she is one of thousands of Timorese who practice martial arts as a form of exercise, community or self-defence.    

But today, she can’t do that anymore; these days, it’s illegal to train, teach or learn martial arts anywhere in Timor-Leste.

And violence — or the practice’s alleged connection to violence — is at the centre of it all. 

Two young women posing
Geovania Miranda Lopes Pinto said martial arts was also her community.(ABC News: Vonia Vieira)

“We must not simplify things and say there’s violence [in Timor-Leste] because of martial arts,” says Samuel Antonio Guterres, a leader of one of the country’s martial arts groups.

“Everyone blames martial arts because it’s easier to say that, this is our weakness.”

A history of martial arts, Jackie Chan included 

Introduced by Indonesia during its occupation, the practice of martial arts is incredibly popular in Timor-Leste. 

But it also has a long and sometimes sordid history in the country.

Some Timorese involved in martial arts groups became clandestine members of groups supporting guerilla fighters during occupation. 

Following the country’s 2002 independence, some groups migrated to politics, sparking sectarian violence. Others went into gang activity, with violent clashes in 2006 leaving dozens dead and tens of thousands displaced. 

In a bid to help quell the violence, Hollywood star and marital arts advocate Jackie Chan even visited the capital as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. 

jackie chan in timor
Jackie Chan conducted a martial arts demonstration in Timor-Leste in 2008.  (YouTube)

Another outbreak of violence in 2013 led to an outright ban, which was later lifted.  

But the recent ban, put in place by the newly-elected Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, has some crying foul.

Mr Gusmão’s government first introduced a six-month ban last year in retaliation for what it says were “four fatalities, 26 injuries and material damage to 21 homes” all attributed to the actions of martial arts groups.     

It said the ban would give the police and regulatory bodies time to inspect clubs across the country and carry out “special crime prevention”. 

But last month, Mr Gusmão extended the ban until October, telling local media in some public schools “students are fighting with teachers”.  

Gusmao microphone
Xanana Gusmão has extended the ban on martial arts in the country. (ABC News: Marian Faa )

“It’s not a punishment,” Mr Gusmão said when extending the ban. “But we need it to continue.” 

Where’s the research? 

Although large sections of the community support the ban in the hope it will help put a stop to violence in what is a largely peaceful nation, the move by the Gusmão government has been met with outrage by martial arts leaders and advocates.

Many, like Fernando Da Costa, suggest it is a short-sighted political move. 

Mr da Costa, the former president of Timor-Leste’s Martial Arts Regulatory Commission, said the country’s history involving martial arts groups showed regulation of the practice was needed.  

But, he said, a ban ignored the true essence of the practice. 

“Martial arts is related to skill, but also using violence in a certain way, so, for that reason, we welcome regulation,” he said.

“We have had had some big conflicts in this country. 

A Timorese man with glasses
Fernando da Costa says regulation is needed but says a ban goes too far.(ABC News: Vonia Vieira)

“But for me, it’s sport, and developing a talent somebody has. It’s a skill and it gives that person the ability to defend himself or herself from a feeling of being insecure in public or certain places.”

Samuel Antonio Guterres, a leader of local martial arts organisation Ikatan Kera Sakti, said he hoped to start training when the six-month ban expired in April. But he said the extension meant “we have to comply”. 

Mr Guterres said, these days, the direct correlation between martial arts and violence in the community was tenuous. 

“What indicators are used to justify the problems that occur are due to martial arts? Who can guarantee this?” he said. 

“Has there been any research that says that? That if martial arts [stops] the percentage of violence will decrease or increase?

“We can’t guarantee that tomorrow there won’t be violence, because the problems that are happening are not just martial arts.”

According to Mr Guterres, the main problem of violence is not only martial arts, but social problems, unemployment, economy and poverty. 

For Geovania Miranda Lopes Pinto, the equation is simple. 

For her, it was a place where she had a community and shared something with her friends, while learning to defend herself. 

And she looks at her now empty martial arts club, she just hopes one day to get back there. 


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