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Timor-Leste’s Road to ASEAN

February 12, 2014

By Mario Filomeno da Costa Pinheiro

The Government of Timor-Leste has indicated that it is committed to joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by 2015, but as the date for the planned accession draws near, questions regarding the benefits of membership, and the young country’s readiness, remain unanswered.

Timor Leste

Timor-Leste’s government has done much to convince ASEAN member states of its readiness to join the region’s largest economic and geo-political organization. However, questions remain about the country’s readiness. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

While Timor-Leste has shown glimpses of its capacity for regional cooperation by hosting international diplomatic events (including the 2012 ASEAN Regional Forum Election Observer Mission and the ADB/OECD Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and the Pacific in 2013), whether this has been enough to convince existing ASEAN member countries of Timor-Leste’s preparedness remains to be seen. The willingness of these countries to induct Timor-Leste into the “regional family” will depend largely on Timor-Leste’s own efforts in setting the course for its official induction, which includes building the capacity of government officials, amending legislation to comply with ASEAN requirements, and committing considerable human and financial resources to participating in ASEAN activities.

The government for its part has done much to convince ASEAN member states of Timor-Leste’s readiness to join the region’s largest economic and geo-political organization. Given the requirement for ASEAN member states to have embassies in all other member states, Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced this year that it will establish the four remaining new embassies in 2014 needed to fulfill this requirement.

While some have expressed doubts about whether Timor-Leste’s government officials have the capacity to attend the vast number of the ASEAN meetings held annually, others argue that the country has in fact reached a suitable level of human resource capacity. The government has invested heavily in education over the last five to seven years, primarily by providing scholarships and sending thousands of students to study abroad. Indeed, the country is starting to see the dividends now as new graduates return and fill much-needed positions in government offices.

Accession, however, is not the sole responsibility of the country’s newly established Secretary of State for ASEAN affairs, Roberto Soares, who has been traveling around the country raising awareness about the benefits of membership, or of the government alone. In addition to coordinated efforts from all relevant government agencies, ASEAN accession will depend on the civil society sector and the broader public, which for the most part, remain outside the fold of policy and decision-making. Given the expertise that civil society has in areas such as human rights, poverty alleviation, and rural development, these organizations could be instrumental in helping the government prepare for ASEAN membership, particularly as it works on addressing gaps in state-provided services.

In June 2013, The Asia Foundation co-hosted a roundtable discussion with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that brought together representatives from the government, civil society, and international experts on ASEAN affairs to identify strategies on how best to engage civil society in Timor-Leste’s accession efforts.

One explanation that emerged from the discussion for the lack of civil society engagement was the widespread perception that the government is unwilling to work with or listen to civil society. As one participant from a leading Timorese NGO said: “Often, the government doesn’t want to show that it listens to NGOs, simply so it can display to the public that it knows better.” Conversely, others argued that civil society has, at times, been overly critical of the government’s performance, a tendency that has led to government accusations that NGOs are promoting the opposition’s agenda. These kinds of attitudes and behavior have created barriers between the state and civil society.

That being said, it is becoming increasingly difficult for governments to maneuver issues such as ASEAN preparation alone. In this regard, national CSOs (including the country’s influential Catholic Church) can assist the government of Timor-Leste by building people-to-people linkages in the region and boosting people’s confidence in ASEAN membership. As many national CSOs have shown that they are capable and willing to engage with the government on ASEAN, the government should be encouraged to reach out to them more often on this issue.

More effective involvement of wider society in Timor-Leste’s ASEAN accession will lead to a greater sense of pride and ownership in its proposed membership, and broader understanding of the benefits of enhanced regional cooperation. As we begin to better comprehend the important role civil society can play in achieving Timor-Leste’s ASEAN aspirations, the challenge now turns to breaking down the barriers between government and civil society, and creating synergies between state efforts and the important role that CSOs play in holding government accountable. Establishing regular communication lines between government agencies and civil society organizations with an interest in ASEAN would be a good place to start.

Mario Filomeno da Costa Pinheiro is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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