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Making Timor-Leste’s ASEAN Accession a People-Centric Effort

May 25, 2011

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta earlier this month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa circulated Timor-Leste’s application to join ASEAN to the nine other ASEAN member countries, recommending that it be given “urgent attention.”

Children playing soccer in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste is among the nine fastest growing economies of the world in 2011, according to The Economist. But, some debate whether the newly independent is ready to join ASEAN. Photo by Conor Ashleigh.

Not surprising to most here, Singapore objected to Timor-Leste’s bid, taking the position that the newly independent nation is “not ready” to join as the grouping’s 11th member.

Over the last decade, Indonesia has emerged as the strongest advocate among ASEAN members for Timor-Leste’s membership into ASEAN. This partnership, between ASEAN’s largest member state and what would be its second smallest, is made more remarkable given the troubled history between the two countries. In fact, Indonesia appointed H.E. Agus Tarmidzi, its former Indonesian Ambassador to Geneva, as special advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Timor-Leste in order to prepare Timor-Leste’s admission. In 2009, an ASEAN Secretariat was established in Dili.

Timor-Leste has held ASEAN observer status since 2002 and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation during the 2007 ASEAN Summit in Cebu, Philippines. But despite such developments, until recently there has been little actual public discourse on Timor-Leste’s membership since it was first proposed in 2001 by then Foreign Affairs Minister and current President Jose Ramos-Horta.

Timor-Leste’s desire to be a member of ASEAN is based on three primary factors: geography, public desire, and a clear government policy as reiterated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Timor-Leste during the 5th ASEAN Regional Forum on Expert and Eminent Persons Meeting on Preventive Diplomacy, held in Dili on Jan. 27, 2011.
Timor-Leste is confident that it will be able to fulfill the financial requirements to join ASEAN, as it has demonstrated as a member of the United Nations, but unfortunately, unlike other groupings such as the European Union, which decides issues through democratic voting, ASEAN makes decisions through consensus. As a result, one member state can slow down decision-making. To meet the human resource capacity requirements of ASEAN, Timor-Leste has made plans to send more students to Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, the United States and other countries for further education.

The denial of Timor-Leste’s application to join ASEAN was also discussed within The Asia Foundation’s office in Timor-Leste. Last week during our lunch break, a group of staff discussed the issue in light of President Jose Ramos-Horta’s May 16 article on East Asia Forum, entitled “Why Timor-Leste should join ASEAN Now.”

President Horta cites the fact that, “Timor-Leste stands out with its very liberal and humanist Constitution that prohibits the death penalty. We have ratified all major International Human Rights Treaties and have complied with our reporting obligations. Timor-Leste, according to Reporters Without Borders, has one of the freest media in the region.” And in terms of economic criteria, President Horta continues, “Timor-Leste has no foreign debt, and according to The Economist 2010 Pocketbook, it has the highest surplus in the world of over 280 per cent as percentage of GDP. Our economy has continued to show robust growth for four consecutive years now, and according to The Economist, Timor-Leste is among the nine fastest growing economies of the world in 2011.”

While not a representative microcosm of the country as a whole, the discussion offered insight on the potential range of public opinion in Timor-Leste. Firstly, many agreed with the points made by President Ramos-Horta. Others raised the issue that Timor-Leste’s government faces a range of daunting challenges in contextualizing ASEAN with the country’s development aims.  In this regard, there was expressed need for an integrated policy on ASEAN among Timor-Leste’s government agencies – an initiative best to be led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in close coordination with the Offices of the President and Prime Minister. Some of the staff also questioned the advantages for Timor-Leste of joining ASEAN. Would the financial burden of joining ASEAN outweigh the benefits, such as the potential for improved trade?  At the end of the discussion, there was no consensus among our staff. However, what became clear was that it is important to make more information publicly available on this important issue.

So far it appears most of the dialogue on ASEAN membership has occurred in government circles, which when broadcast to the public, sometimes appears to be conflicting. For instance, Timor-Leste was touted as being fully capable of being an ASEAN member; but then later, the debate shifted to support the argument that Timor-Leste needed to prepare more to be accepted. During this time, there was an absence of dialogue between government and civil society groups about specific priorities needed to make Timor-Leste ready for ASEAN.

Meanwhile, international observers have started their own discussion of Timor-Leste’s membership to ASEAN. Barry Wain of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) lends the following perspective: (1) Timor-Leste lacks the institutions and competent officials to attend the 1,000 or more ASEAN meetings that are held annually; (2) Southeast Asia risks being squeezed into irrelevance in the shadow of the booming economies of China and India; (3) Timor-Leste’s membership should not jeopardize the creation the ASEAN economic community by 2015; and (4) Timor-Leste’s plan to become an ASEAN member was never discussed publicly.

Critics like Megawati Wijaya, a Singapore-based journalist, argue that problems occurred when ASEAN last opened its doors to Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia from 1995 to 1999. In a recent article in Asia Times, she quotes K. Kesavapany, director of ISEAS who warned, “The other ASEAN member governments would no doubt be reminded of a previous instance when membership was granted on grounds other than technical ones and ASEAN had to live with the consequences of that decision and continues to do so even today.” She continues that new members needed more time to carry out all of the obligations that they have signed, especially on economic issues. Was it wise to admit four countries that had far lower levels of economic development than the grouping’s six original members?  Considering its rejection of Timor-Leste’s bid, it appears Singapore would still answer, no.

Other pundits raise the issue of the potential clash of political values. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs to the Vice President of Indonesia and research professor for Intermestic Affairs at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), writes in a recent Jakarta Post article that the challenges faced in deepening regional integration are well known, and that adding new members, especially ones with different political values, has always been up for debate. ASEAN is still struggling with the challenges brought in by new members, as was the case when Laos and Myanmar became full members in 1997, Cambodia in 1999, and Vietnam in 1995. Anwar argues that the great diversity in social and political outlooks have also made the desire to develop and adhere to common norms and values as the bases of an ASEAN Community envisioned for 2015 extremely difficult to realize.

However one positions oneself in the debate, the main arguments still beg the basic question, “Is joining ASEAN good for the people of Timor-Leste?” Asia Foundation consultant and associate professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Leonard C. Sebastian, recommended in his recent paper submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Timor-Leste to revamp its “road map” before jumping into any one initiative to promote inclusion. He prudently advises the Ministry to describe in detail the desired benefits to Timor-Leste in its membership to ASEAN and lay out a set of clear objectives on how to meet the practical challenges of ASEAN membership.

In doing so, re-crafting the “road map” would provide an opportunity to make Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership both a government and people-centric project. To do this, Professor Sebastian suggests establishing an ASEAN Unit in economic-related ministries; creating a middle management culture within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerned with “big picture” issues; increasing human resource capacity; and developing a multi-stakeholder constituency among the public to engage in dialogue around ASEAN membership. Through this process, both state and society would be able to weigh in on the costs and benefits of joining.

In the end, however, ASEAN member states may find they have less to be concerned about in Timor-Leste’s political and economic impact on ASEAN than originally anticipated.

Former ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino, in his 2006 publication, Southeast Asia in Search of an ASEAN Community, said that there are no other conditions for membership, certainly none in terms of the behavior of states toward their citizens and other people in their territories, none in terms of political or social systems, and none in terms of economic policy other than those pertaining to regional economic integration and cooperation. If the state and society of Timor-Leste’s government have a clear framework and rationale for accession, Singapore and other countries that initially objected to Timor-Leste’s admission into the ASEAN would be encouraged to revisit the question, “On what grounds should ASEAN reject the membership of Timor-Leste?”

Hugo Fernandes is program manager and Jose Soares is grant manager for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. They can be reached at hfernandes@asiafound.org and jsoares@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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