BANGKOK, Jun 15 (Reporting ASEAN) – By the time ASEAN turns 50 years old next year, Timor Leste could already be its eleventh member state. After filing its application six years ago, Timor Leste is poised to join ASEAN under the chairmanship of the Philippines, which is very keen to bring the region’s young democracy into its embrace.
What made headlines regarding the admission of Timor Leste, or East Timor, was the comment by Rahmat Pramono, Indonesia’s Permanent Representative to ASEAN, that ASEAN was closer to welcoming Dili. This was, after all, the first time a senior ASEAN official revealed the status of ongoing discussions on ASEAN’s fourth enlargement.
“In 2011, when Indonesia was the head of ASEAN, Timor Leste submitted an application to join ASEAN. The ASEAN member countries agreed to conduct a feasibility study of the new country,” Pramono said. Earlier, Timor Leste’s prospects for gaining membership had been blocked by Jakarta, which said that the country was not ready due to political instability, weak economic infrastructure and insufficient human resources to engage ASEAN. These assessments were shared by other member states at the time.
But a change of heart came about as the bilateral relations between Indonesia and Timor Leste improved under the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Today, Jakarta is actively pushing for Dili’s inclusion in ASEAN. New ASEAN members such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar are likewise inclined to accept Timor Leste.
Looking back, Timor Leste had expressed its intention to join ASEAN as early as a year after its independence in 2002. At the time, Thailand and Cambodia were the only two countries backing the young nation’s bid to join ASEAN right away. They thought that the best way to help was to include it in the ASEAN family as soon as possible. As a young democracy, Thailand at the time also viewed ASEAN’s expansion as a way to strengthen openness and democratization in its member states.
But other ASEAN countries were reluctant about Timor Leste’s entry. Among the old ASEAN members, Singapore was very succinct in its position that Timor Leste needed some time to prepare for membership in ASEAN because it lacked the capacity to join the economic community. The island republic feared that Timor Leste’s entry would slow down the grouping’s community-building progress.
The feasibility studies done as part as of processing Timor Leste’s membership application looked at three aspects by which to evaluate the country’s overall qualifications as ASEAN’s 11th member. These three are the pillars of politics and security, economy and socio-cultural issues. The political and security as well as economic aspects have been assessed, while the socio-cultural assessment is expected to be completed soon by Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and Security Studies.
The two completed studies on the politics and security pillar and the economic pillar concluded that Timor Leste must improve human resource development and undertake capacity-building in order to boost its economic growth and skills. When the ASEAN Community was launched at the end of last year, all members pledged to implement new action plans in the three pillars under the new framework from 2015-2025.
In July this year, the ASEAN foreign ministers will meet in Vientiane to discuss whether Timor Leste can join the regional organization by next year.
Earlier this year, in a surprise move, Dili agreed to host a meeting among the ASEAN-based civil society organizations because Laos, ASEAN chair in 2016, was reluctant to do so. Since 2005, as part of the effort to transform ASEAN into a people-centred community, ASEAN leaders have been having an interface with representatives of civil society organizations. But so far, these dialogues have been held irregularly, and often depend on the ASEAN chair’s decision.
When ASEAN admitted new members in 1995, 1997 and 1999, these new members – Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia – were admitted without any pre-conditions or preparations. They learned from daily engagements with their ASEAN colleagues, gradually absorbing the ASEAN way. In meeting after meeting, they worked together with officials from other member countries, at all levels. Within a short period, they mastered the ways and means to interact with the rest of ASEAN family.
To prepare for its membership in ASEAN, Timor Leste has opened foreign missions in all 10 ASEAN member countries and dispatched officials to be attached to the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat. Since there remain few Timor Leste officials who speak or write in English – Tetum and Portuguese are the country’s official languages – quite a few other ASEAN countries have been diligently helping them out in English-language communication.
Currently, ASEAN has 10 members comprising Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. (END/Reporting ASEAN – Edited by Johanna Son)
*Kavi Chongkittavorn is a columnist with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.