Portuguese colonists first settled on the Southeast Asian island in 1515. In November 1975, the country gained its independence by the Revolutionary Front of an Independent East Timor. The Indonesian military invaded after only nine days.

In a referendum, 78.5% voted for independence from Indonesia. This resulted in widespread violence from pro-Indonesian factions, which required to intervene with U.N. peacekeepers.

This led to the U.N. Transitional Administration (UNTAET), which lasted from 1999 to 2002, when Timor Leste regained full independence.

Timorese boys loot an abandoned police station in Dili, the capital of East Timor, May 29, 2006. Adrees Latif/Reuters

East Timorese came together in the bloody struggle to end Indonesian occupation. A political-military conflict erupted in 2006 after the army was dismissed.

In 2006, the incident escalated to a series of clashes involving the police, army, and rebel soldiers, and over 150,000 displaced.

The crisis exposed a deep tension in the country between the young and old generations.

Youth Crisis

Timor Leste is home to one of the youngest populations on the planet. The rapid growth of its population has brought attention to the plight and position of youth in the country.

A 2007 World Bank report entitled Timor Leste Youth in Crisis: Analysis of Situation and Policy Options stated that the involvement of youths in the violence was one of the most visible aspects of the crisis. The generational gap has become a major feature of Timor Leste’s social discourse.

A policeman in Dili, Timor Leste. Lirio da Fonseca. Lirio da Fonseca/Reuters

Two generations have witnessed the long struggle of the country for independence. First, there is the “Generation of ’99”, or Geracao Founwho was born during the Indonesian occupation. Some of them became national leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. The “Generation of “75”, who are older Portuguese-speaking leaders, dominates the government.

They disagree on certain issues. Their relationship is crucial to the social cohesion of the country and the transmission of cultural values.

Gembel Collective is more than just a fine arts school. It helps young East Timorese connect with their own identity. Y.H.

Timor Leste youth are suffering from a lack of employment opportunities, and the rate of poverty is still high at 41.8%. Basic rights like education, employment, and participation in politics are still far behind.

Murals for peace

Timor Leste’s youth has become so traumatized by recent events that they have taken to venting their frustration on walls. Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, looks like an outdoor art gallery.

Dili is the capital of Timor Leste. 2017. Y.H.

Former president Jose Ramos Horta, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006, and several NGOs recognized that murals and graffiti are one of the best ways to communicate with the people of Colombia. They commissioned artists to paint walls all over the country to send messages of peace and unity.

Murals and graffiti have become a distinct part of our landscape. The arts help young people express their opposition to the political and legal authority in the country.

After the 2002 independence, many of the artists were excluded from the “Generation of “99”. Today, they seek to legitimize the role of the resistance movement against Indonesia as well as to remind current generations about their history through debates about post-independence identities.

Gembel Art Collective, a similar initiative, was established in 2003 as Arte Moris. Gembel Art proposes free art classes, as well as theatre, music, and traditional performances. Like Arte Moris, its types and spaces are open to everyone.

Human rights are also a concern for artists such as those affiliated with Arte Moris and Gembel Art Collective. Some of these include the fight for land and the search for the “disappeared children” who were taken by Indonesian forces between 1975-1999.

Artists may also support campaigns, such as the Hands Off Timor Oil initiative with the government. The artists may support government campaigns such as Hands Off Timor Oil. They encourage people to consider the issues that affect their country through the arts.

Music for Human Rights

Music bands are also taking over public places in an attempt to bring together generations who have been separated by the various crises Timor Leste experienced.

Galaxy Band is a good example. It was founded in 1999, just after the referendum. The lyrics of the band, which criticized land, social, national, and political issues, and nationalism, were well-received by young people.

Galaxy Band performing on Music Day on June 21, 2016.

Mely Fernandez was the lead vocalist of the group, and I met her in Dili. She told me that, for Timorese youths, the late 1990s marked a new beginning but also a time when they were facing an uncertain future.

During the internal crisis of 2006, the band included social and political messages in their songs and poetry. Mely says that sometimes they are faced with government interference, but it’s a good sign because the government is paying attention.

Problems and challenges

The Economist Intelligence Unit‘s 2016 report on Southeast Asia’s democracy index found that despite the region having the highest democratic index, the use, and enjoyment by artists of public spaces are not without their challenges.

Ramos Horta, a staunch supporter of arts in Timor Leste, was not very well cared for by the government today.