Slow Progress in Timor Leste’s Bid for ASEAN Membership

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Nov. 18 – Cautiousness and mixed feelings among the ASEAN member states continue to slow progress in Timor Leste’s bid to join the 10-member regional bloc. In September, Timor Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao spent five days in the Myanmar cities of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw to strengthen diplomatic relations with the country set to assume the ASEAN Chair in 2014.

Progress, however, was underwhelming.

“There is little diplomatic solidarity between these two very different countries,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, project director for Southeast Asia for the International Crisis Group.

Member states have been divided on the prospect of granting entry to the young and unstable country since it became a sovereign state in 2002. Laos and Singapore have been the most resistant to its inclusion. Even with diplomatic visits from Timor Leste in recent months to improve bilateral economic relations, Laos has been concerned about the potential implications of ASEAN expansion for inward international aid.

In addition, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has openly questioned the attention the bloc has been paying to the half-island nation compared to other prospective entrees such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Many member states also point to the miniscule economic and political benefits and high risks associated with the potential accession of a country that Della-Giacoma labels as the “poor cousin of geographic Southeast Asia.”

Timor Leste’s gross domestic product is just US$1.3 billion, dwarfed even by Laos’ US$9.2 billion economy. Its per-capita GDP is a meager US$536, with 41 percent of its 1.1 million inhabitants living under the nationally defined poverty line of $0.88 a day. Severely underdeveloped transportation, telecommunications and electricity infrastructure repel potential foreign investment.

Furthermore, skilled labor is scarce in a country where half of the population is below 20 years old. Member states have been reluctant to include such an economy into the bloc, especially in the context of the upcoming 2015 deadline for an ASEAN Economic Community.

The political environment in Timor Leste is an enormous concern as well, as violence has been a defining aspect of its history. In 1999, anti-independence militia had to be suppressed by international peacekeeping forces. In 2006, violence between dissident military forces, civilians and police led to gang violence, destruction of property and the displacement of 15 percent of the population, leading to an additional UN intervention.

In February 2008, an assassination attempt against the newly elected President José Ramos-Horta led to a declaration of a state of emergency and curfew. Further, gang violence between the eastern lorosae and the western loromonu involving arson, machete brandishing and civilian terrorism emerged shortly after independence.

Institutionally, Timor Leste’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs employed just 85 people both overseas and domestically in 2006, of which only 55 were diplomats – the ministry’s budget was a mere US$5 million. As a violation of preconditions necessary for succession, Timor Leste still does not have an embassy in all member states, namely the incoming chair Myanmar. ASEAN member states question whether such a resource-strapped country can handle the necessary diplomatic burden of membership, which typically entails attendance of at least 620 meetings annually and hosting more than a thousand in a chair’s year.

Still, now former-President Ramos-Horta claims his country’s application for entry has the support of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Indonesia’s stance is seen as an effort at recompense for its brutal 24-year occupation of Timor Leste. Indeed, it was under Indonesia’s 2011 chair that Timor Leste submitted its initial application for entry. Even Singapore, in all its reluctance, has stopped short of outright rejection, crucial in a consensus-based intergovernmental organization.

ASEAN membership has been a national goal of Timor Leste since its independence. Just five months after its formal declaration of independence, Ramos-Horta, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, said, “[Joining ASEAN] will force us to work hard. It will help the economy of East Timor to accelerate.”

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