Admit Timor Leste to bloc now or never
The Asean founding fathers' dream was to have all Southeast Asian countries under one roof. Timor Leste's (East Timor) dream was to join Asean as soon as possible. Both dreams have yet to be fulfilled. The reason is simple enough: Certain Asean members are not ready to have the world's youngest democracy stand among them.
According to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Timor Leste's media freedom in 2019 ranks the highest in Southeast Asia at 84th, ahead of Indonesia at 124th and the Philippines at 134th. In contrast, Myanmar ranks 138th followed by Singapore at 151st. In overall freedom, the latest index released by New York-based Freedom House in early May labelled Timor Leste as the only "free" country in the region, while all 10 Asean member are "partly free" or "not-free".
Unfortunately, from a regional perspective, these merits do not fit in the overall criteria for admission. In fact, more than the Asean leaders would like to admit, they pose a serious hurdle for Timor Leste, as most of the grouping's members do not have the same level of civil and political rights. Therefore, admitting the country now could be problematic, causing not only headaches but heartaches.
Conservative Asean members fear that East Timor could be a tool for liberal-minded dialogue partners to use as an entry point to influence events inside the regional bloc. In addition, it is an open secret that certain smaller Asean members also fear certain bigger colleagues could yield influence over Dili as a member.
Soon after independence, the country's leaders reiterated their desire to join Asean. Before its official application in 2011, East Timor had to engage with issues related to nation building, not to mention efforts to normalise ties with Indonesia. At the Bali summit in November 2011, in response to Dili's official application of membership, Jakarta gave strong support, which immediately changed the whole dynamic of the debate on this topic. Previously, Indonesia was solely blamed for obstructing its accession.
At this juncture, 10 years has elapsed along with numerous studies, but Timor Leste's membership is still undecided. Its die-hard Asean opponents have continued to cite the existing huge development gap as the main justification to delay the entry. Certain Asean members stressed the human resource deficit and financial constraints as the main hindrance. For instance, in the defence and security areas, they repeated, this could cause a huge problem because there are lots of joint exercises and programmes that need personnel and financial resources, which Timor Leste does not have.
Truth be told, the real problem is that a timeframe to admit Timor Leste has not been set. In other words, unless and until all Asean members feel the country is ready, there is no chance that Dili can make it. In 2011, former president Ramos Horta was confident, although mistakenly, that his country would be the 11th Asean member by 2012. Lest we forget, Asean has postponed making a decision on this issue in 2012, 2015 and 2017. When the Philippines chaired Asean two years ago, Manila tried very hard to convince other Asean members to admit Timor Leste but it failed to push it through.
At the sixth meeting of the Asean Coordinating Council Workshop Group in Jakarta in December 2017, senior officials recommended that each pillar (political/security, economic, social/culture) form a fact-finding mission on Timor Leste to assess its readiness to be a member.
For the Asean Political and Security Community, 63 questionnaires have been prepared for senior officials. They are divided into sections on political cooperation, security cooperation, external relations, human rights, and legal cooperation. In the segment on legal cooperation alone, two dozen questions were focused on Timor Leste's justice system and its administrative capacity. At the Asean senior official meeting in Bangkok next week, Timor Leste's membership will again be a hot topic.
At the Asean Secretariat last Friday, Timor Leste's Foreign Minister Dionisio da Costa Babo Soares, held talks with Secretary General Paduka Dato Lim Jock Hoi about the ongoing efforts to make his country a member. Although the country has set up diplomatic missions in all member countries, more needs to be done. Officials from Timor Leste also interned and received training from the secretariat and Asean members. English-language proficiency among its officials and people has also increased. Portuguese and Indonesian are widely used in the country.
Sooner or later, the reality on the ground will force Asean to make a political decision to admit Timor Leste. Frankly speaking, it would take another decade or two before all the criteria can be met to allow it to join Asean. Thailand is a strong supporter of Dili as it played a pivotal role during the peace-keeping period and subsequent national-building process, right after the referendum in 2000.
In retrospect, Asean has displayed its greatest resilience when new members were admitted -- Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. At the time of their admission, each of them was not yet fully ready to integrate with the bloc. There was a high level of anxiety. It was all a work in progress. However, with assistance and tolerance from Asean's founding members, these new members were able to assimilate with the Asean ways of doing things and join in other numerous schemes. Each new member has its own stories to tell and lessons learned which could benefit Dili.
At the moment, the sense of urgency at the end of the Cold War is clearly absent. New disruptive developments, both predictable and unpredictable, are looming large on the horizon. It is good to have all Southeast Asian countries under one roof despite the inherent weaknesses of certain members. In the coming months, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam must be convinced beyond any doubt that Timor Leste as the bloc's newest member would further strengthen Asean centrality, solidarity and cooperation, not drag the grouping down with the current shortcomings.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs