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Timor-Leste’s Road to ASEAN Membership

March 9, 2011

By Leonard C. Sebastian

Last week, Timor-Leste’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Zacarias Albano da Costa, submitted a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reaffirming the nation’s aspiration to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Shortly after, SBY declared Indonesia’s support for Timor-Leste to “become a full member of ASEAN during the presidency of Indonesia in this Organization.” While it’s clear that relations between the two countries have strengthened and will continue to do so, the road ahead for Timor-Leste’s ascension to ASEAN requires further elucidation.

on the road from Dili to the border with West Timor

As relations between Indonesia and Timor-Leste have improved, the young nation sees an opportunity to initiate full membership of ASEAN with Indonesia’s backing. Above, travelers approach the once turbulent border crossing between the two countries. Photo: Conor Ashleigh

The next 12 months will be a crucial period in Timor-Leste’s diplomacy. As Jakarta takes over from Vietnam as ASEAN chair, Timor-Leste sees an opportunity to initiate formal arrangements for its full membership of ASEAN with Indonesia’s backing. If successful, ASEAN membership will mark a new phase in Timor-Leste’s history, coinciding with new presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012 and the phased withdrawal of the United Nations mission set up in 2006.

This on-going debate over Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership also reflects a generational and ideological divide that is prevalent in society here. Some from the Portuguese-era generation who remember ASEAN’s silence over the violence perpetrated by local militia backed by the Indonesian military before and after the vote for independence in 1999 have spoken out against ASEAN membership. Returning Timorese elites have stressed the undemocratic or semi-democratic nature of many ASEAN states, suggesting that Timor-Leste had closer affinities with the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum instead.

Many of these arguments have now been overtaken by the introduction of the ASEAN Charter and its human rights mechanisms, incremental political changes in Myanmar, and the emergence of Indonesia as the region’s largest democracy. In addition, opposing voices have been moderated in light of improving relations between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. A new, more globally influenced generation is emerging that will naturally be more ASEAN-centric.

Regardless of these positions, ASEAN membership will be an important step in order for Timor-Leste to be plugged in to the new ASEAN growth poles that will develop as the organization evolves into an Economic Community in 2015. But, beyond the potential economic benefits, the question remains how ASEAN membership will act as catalyst to shape Timor-Leste’s identity as a state – domestically and regionally.

Leonard C. Sebastian is an associate professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. In a forthcoming paper, commissioned by The Asia Foundation, he provides recommendations for Timor-Leste to consider in its bid to join ASEAN. The paper marks the first in a series as part of an institutional strengthening program for Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, implemented by the Foundation and funded by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.


1 Comment

  1. Timor-Leste accesion to ASEAN is not the only way to find any help from the membership but to encourage one another in developing capacity and to have a good relationship.

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