Allow Timor into Asean

Allow Timor into Asean

A meeting in Indonesia has all the signs of becoming a talkfest without result. And that is a shame, since the senior officials from the 10 Asean countries will be talking -- again -- about admitting East Timor as the 11th member. The Asean summit in Manila three weeks ago should "continue assess" the application by Dili to join. Tuesday's talks are disappointing, because the group should have already decided to admit Timor, and should be discussing details.

East Timor, official name Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste from its Portuguese colonial roots, exists because of Asean. Largely thanks to the late Surin Pitsuwan's efforts as foreign minister and then as Asean secretary-general, Indonesia after much bloodshed agreed to abandon its questionable claim so that Timor could become free in 1999. Thai troops in blue helmets, led by Gen Boonsrang Niumpradit, secured the emerging nation as UN peacekeepers.

Because of war and bloody-mindedness by ex-dictator Suharto and others, Timor began from almost nothing. Its first-generation legislators and executives were almost all from the bush, fresh from guerrilla warfare. But Timor Leste has made admirable progress towards independent nationhood. In September, 2002, the UN General Assembly briefly debated and then voted unanimously to admit Timor.

It must be repeated that every country, including Singapore, voted in favour of accepting Timor as a member of the world community. That is important, because Singapore is the major naysayer in the curious debate that will continue Tuesday over whether Timor should become a member of Asean. Singapore says "no" on two grounds. One is that Timor lies too far from the centre of the Asean group. The other is that is not yet developed enough to qualify.

Both these claims are subjective, and other countries including Thailand are properly contesting them. The general mood among the 10 Asean members is to welcome East Timor. As so often occurs, Timor won't get in any time soon because of the pernicious "Asean way", which requires a unanimous vote or consensus on any step at all.

Serious diplomatic discussion could quickly shred both these Singaporean arguments. The distance reasoning is easily dismissed. Dili, the Timorese capital, is slightly farther from Singapore than are Nay Pyi Taw and Manila, where "slightly" is not at important. The distance from east to west within Asean is well over four hours in a passenger jetliner. Timor would add no more than 30 minutes. The claim is more obstructionist than serious.

On economic development, Singapore's argument is only slightly better. It is true that Timor is not a developed country. Neither are the economies of other Asean members, notably Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. One of the reasons for the very formation of Asean 50 years ago was to encourage faster development of all member countries through joint actions and encouragement. It is the main reason for the existence of the new Asean Economic Community. Uneven development of its members has always been considered a plus.

Timor ranks low in economic and human development, as measured by accepted agencies. Its entire GDP totalled $1.4 billion for 2015, barely 1/100th of Thailand's. The Laos GDP is 10 times as large. But the Singaporean reasoning is flawed. If left out of Asean, Timor is certain to continue to develop at a glacial pace. Brought into the group, it could be expected to begin to flourish, as have other members.

Today's meeting in Indonesia of senior officials should decide finally to recommend membership in Asean for the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Then proper negotiations can begin on just how and when to embrace the 11th member.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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