At least 12 East Timorese have been killed and more than 200 injured in the past two years as a result of fighting among rival pencak silat clubs, said Armando Monteiro, National Police detective chief. Two were killed in neighbouring Indonesia, while other deaths and injuries have occurred as far away as England and Ireland. He said the number of casualties is likely higher since many people are afraid to report gang activity or go to the hospital for treatment.
"Any martial arts clubs members that violate the government resolution will be dealt with under the law," Monteiro said. There will be "zero tolerance for martial arts activities in the country."
Schools and clubs for pencak silat, an adapted form of the Indonesian martial art, have a long history in East Timor, with many students in the past fighting against Indonesia's military occupation. They also became active clandestine members in supporting guerrilla fighters and some made significant contributions toward winning the country's independence in 2002.
Later, martial arts students became rivals and began killing each other in the streets as happened in 2006 during a violent political crisis that left dozens dead and tens of thousands displaced in the tiny half-island nation.
In many villages across East Timor, students start learning pencak silat at age 13. Less popular martial arts, such as karate, kung fu, taekwondo and judo, are not banned.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao issued a resolution outlawing the popular clubs two months ago. He said he has tried to work with the groups for years to allow them to continue to operate peacefully, but said the original purpose and philosophy of martial arts has been lost in East Timor.
"I have no more mercy and no more patience," said Gusmao, who added he has tried to work with the groups since becoming the country's first president in 2002. "I cannot tolerate the situation anymore, and I cannot permit it anymore."
Gusmao said police and members of the military have been told to leave martial arts groups or be fired.
Some clubs have publicly handed over their uniforms to police in front of government officials, but police say some members continue to conduct their training secretly at night.
Monteiro said anyone caught violating the resolution will be punished under the law. Seven martial arts clubs were registered, but many others exist without the government's knowledge making it difficult to estimate the number of members nationwide.
Last month, one East Timorese student was killed at Widyagama University in Malang, Indonesia, and another had his hand cut off with a samurai sword by a martial arts gang member.
"I need justice because the suspects who cut off my hand have not yet been captured by the police," said Jacinto Cipriano Ximenes, 25, a final-year telecommunications student who plans to return to school and finish his studies this year.
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