By Julio Gil da Silva Guterres, B.A.
When will Timor Leste become the member of the Southeast Asian organization? This writing is not only to answer that question but also to analyze ASEAN‘s visions in the past, present and future.
ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a geopolitical and economic organization established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand. ASEAN was established through the Bangkok Declaration which was initiated by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Indonesia was represented by Adam Malik, Philippines by Narciso R. Ramos, Malaysia by Tun Abdul Razak, Singapore by S. Rajaratman, and Thailand by Thanat Khoman.
The Bangkok Declaration contained five important points; (1) To accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the Southeast Asian region, (2) To promote regional peace and stability, (3) To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, technical, scientific and administrative spheres, (4) To maintain close cooperation within regional and international organizations, (5) To enhance cooperation in the fields of education, training, and researches in the region.
ASEAN now has 10 member countries with the joining of Brunei Darussalam (7 January 1984), Vietnam (28 July 1995), Laos (23 July 1997), Myanmar (23 July 1997), and Cambodia (16 December 1998). Regional and territorial-wise, Southeast Asia has still not accepted two countries for the ASEAN membership, they are Timor Leste (TL) and Papua New Guinea (PNG), which are both in the process of applying for membership. This writing will focus on Timor Leste’s application, especially on its readiness in terms of politics, economy, culture and security, the basic membership criteria to join the regional forum.
Timor Leste is situated between the Asia Pacific and Southeast Asian regions with a history of a long struggle for independence. This country submitted its formal application to the ASEAN Secretariat on 4 March 2011 under the Indonesian Chairman. Historically, Timor Leste had made several attempts to join ASEAN before March 2011, including by opening an ASEAN National Secretariat in Dili (Memorial Hall) in early February 2009, where the secretariat is used to prepare the necessary steps to become an ASEAN member.
It had also received moral supports from all ASEAN members, including Indonesia, which was conveyed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa. “We will continue to work hard to help realize Timor Leste’s vision to be a member of ASEAN. Indonesia welcomes the appointment of Dr. Roberto Soares as Timor Leste’s junior minister for ASEAN affairs within Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s Cabinet. This move proves Timor Leste’s seriousness to pave the way toward ASEAN membership,” as stated in one of a series of statements made by Minister Natalegawa on the sidelines of a press conference with his Timor Leste counterpart, Jose Luis Guterres in Jakarta on September 2012.
One of the most touching moral supports it received was the political statement of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during former RDTL President Dr. Jose Ramos Horta’s state visit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 30 March 2011. He said: “Cambodia’s support is regardless Timor-Leste is a small or big, poor or rich country, but to reflect the equal rights of the countries in the region. Timor-Leste will take its rightful place as the 11th member”. ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan in his statement after the 18th ASEAN summit at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta said: “I don’t see any rejection. It’s now just a matter of time and readiness from both parties.”
The ASEAN chairman announced in Jakarta the conclusion from the 18th ASEAN summit on 7-8 May 2011 that Timor Leste’s application needs to be further considered and requires more attention. Therefore, each head of state from the ASEAN countries would assign their respective foreign affairs ministers in their capacity as ASEAN Coordinator Council to discuss Timor Leste’s application and to issue a recommendation for the leaders of the ASEAN member countries. Timor Leste continues to strengthen it’s commitment to become a member of ASEAN through the political statements of its leaders who continued to assure that Timor Leste had met all criteria to become the 11th ASEAN member. Former RDTL president Dr. Jose Ramos Horta, during a visit in Cambodia in March 2011, said that the country would not be a burden for other ASEAN members. State Secretary for ASEAN Affairs Dr. Roberto Soares reiterated the statement at the national symposium held by think thank East Timor American Alumni–ETAA on 7 November 2012 at the Auditorium Yayasahan Hak, Farol, Dili.
“We will not be a burden to other ASEAN fellow members, we are ready and it is already one step ahead to join ASEAN,”he said.
The latest statement made by the country’s leaders came from Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao when he attended the 5th Bali Democracy Forum in Bali on 8 November 2012: “Timor-Leste is on the verge of joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which entails both challenges and opportunities. Once we are accepted as a fully-fledged member of ASEAN, we will become a closer part of this global economic transition and be able to engage more actively in the strategic agenda of regional development. Timor-Leste is committed to seizing the opportunities of the Asian Century which will see increased economic demand in the region. We will do this by developing our industries, our fisheries and our agriculture, by expanding our markets and by developing our tourism sector.”
Based on the political, economic, human resources, culture and security aspects, Timor Leste is (99.99%) ready to sign the ASEAN membership form as the 11th member. According to UNDP Human Development Report, “Timor-Leste’s Human Development Index value for 2010 is 0.502, placing it in the medium human development category. In 2005, Timor-Leste’s Human Development Index value was 0.428, and its level at independence in 2002 was 0.375.
This report showed that the human resources quality in Timor Leste has improved which placed it on the 120 rank above other ASEAN countries such as Laos (122), Cambodia (124) and Myanmar (132). Timor Leste has declared itself as a nation of free of illiteracy. Timor-Leste has no foreign debt and according to The Economist 2010 Pocketbook, it has the highest surplus in the world of over 280 per cent as percentage of GDP.
Timor-Leste’s Defense force (FFDTL) and police officers (PNTL) have served and are serving with the United Nations in the Balkans and Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, DR Congo and Afghanistan). Timor Leste has provided in cash support to victims of natural disasters in Indonesia, Myanmar, China, Madeira Islands (Portugal), Haiti, Brazil and Australia, totaling close to $5 million in the last three years, Starting from November 1st, 2012, Timor-Leste is now become part of the Brazilian board (constituency) at the executive council of the IMF, and become the first Asian country to be represented by Brazil, which already represents nations from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. 38 % of the 2012 elected MPs are women and several women hold key ministerial portfolios (G7+, CEDAW and Ministries).
From the aspects of security and stability, Timor Leste which previously saw cultural conflicts every two years have transformed into a reconciliation and peace-based country since its independence. The UN peace mission in Timor Leste has also ended since 31 October 2012. What’s more significant is that the UN mission in Timor Leste will end on 31 December 2012.
According to the author’s view, Singapore’s refusal to accept Timor Leste’s ASEAN membership is just a matter of postponing time and readiness in terms of politics, economy, culture and security so that ASEAN members can all achieve the goal to say ONE VISION, ONE, IDENTITY, ONE COMMUNITY.
The author would like to end this writing by saying that ASEAN’s slogan “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” for 2015 would be meaningless if Timor Leste, which is geographically part of Southeast Asia is still not a member of the ASEAN by 2015. How can ASEAN name itself One Community when it still left out one of its community? How can it call itself ONE IDENTITY when the identity of Timor Leste is not included and ASEAN is unable to implement ONE VISION because Timor Leste has started cooperation on several areas with some ASEAN members, especially with Indonesia on economic cooperation framework called “the Regional Integrated Economic Approach”. So, ASEAN without Timor Leste is the same as a state without sovereignty.
The author is Director of CJITL (Center for Investigative Journalists of Timor Leste), the recipient of Southeast Asian Press Alliance SEAPA 2011 Fellowship Program and USA Edward Murrow Fellowship Program 2011.