A seat at the table – The Edge Review

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Timor-Leste’s bid for ASEAN membership inches forward

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Timor-Leste got a timely boost from Singapore in early June in its bid to to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-member bloc that covers almost all of Southeast Asia except the tiny half-island country lost in the eastern reaches of the massive Indonesian archipelago.

Former Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta campaigning in Dili before July 2012 parliamentary elections (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Former Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta campaigning in Dili before July 2012 parliamentary elections (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

A Timorese government press release was quick to jump on what it saw as an endorsement by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for Timor-Leste’s bid for membership following a bilateral meeting between the two: “Regarding ASEAN, Prime Minister Lee noted that ‘Timor-Leste naturally wants to strengthen its ties with the region and desires to join ASEAN.’ He reaffirmed Singapore’s commitment to the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group process, and Singapore’s continued assistance in capacity building for Timor-Leste.”

Singapore’s own statements on the bilateral meeting were more circumspect, but the city-state’s nod to Dili’s aspirations to join ASEAN marks a corner turned for the gas-rich but otherwise indigent country.

Previously, Singapore’s concerns about taking on another underdeveloped member were said to be the main hurdle to Timor-Leste joining the bloc, with the wealthy city-state unsure about whether the country, also known as East Timor, has the manpower needed to handle the cumbersome annual workload of ASEAN meetings.

ASEAN’s last enlargement in the 1990s saw relatively poor Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam join, and integrating these autocratic, sometimes Communist-ruled new members proved difficult.

But then, Timor-Leste is a market economy and a democracy, and, with a population of around one million, is also much smaller. The next smallest of the four countries that most recently joined ASEAN – Laos – has six times that number living inside its borders. So, Timor-Leste’s own capacity issues aside, it shouldn’t matter much for the 500 million residents of ASEAN to take in another one million people.

Timor-Leste was, of course, previously technically a part of ASEAN, but that temporary affiliation came by dint of Indonesia’s quarter-century occupation up to 1999. Ironically, the briefly-independent Timor that emerged after the Portuguese left in 1974 sought to join ASEAN, a bloc which, of course, came about largely at Jakarta’s instigation, before Jakarta invaded and occupied Timor-Leste.

One of the leaders of the resistance to Indonesian occupation, Jose Ramos-Horta, who subseqently served as both president, prime minister and foreign minister of Timor-Leste, has long advocated that the independent country join the regional grouping.

To be sure, Timor-Leste’s tiny coterie of bureaucrats would be hard-pressed to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s on the vast sheafs of ASEAN documents needed for incessant meetings each year. But despite talk that Singapore was the country holding up the country’s bid for ASEAN membership, Ramos Horta says that Singapore has been helping with much-needed skills-training for Timorese officials.

“Singapore has been very practical and generous in helping Timor-Leste in developing its HR weaknesses,” the former Nobel peace laureate said in an email to The Edge Review.

Other backing for ASEAN membership has come from Manila, which along with Timor-Leste, is one of two culturally-Catholic countries in the region. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao visited Manila following his recent trip to Singapore.

Ramon Carandang, spokesperson for Philippine President Benigno Aquino, told The Edge Review that although there is no timetable for Timor-Leste to become the 11th member of ASEAN, “The Philippines, like other ASEAN counties, is helping with the capacity building.”

However Timor-Leste only has embassies in five ASEAN states – Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – meaning for example, that if it joined in time for Myanmar’s landmark chairmanship next year, it would have to fly officials from Dili to attend every meeting. A non-starter in other words.

ASEAN has called in consultants to study the implications of Timor-Leste’s application, which could stall the process for the meantime.

“Until they (the studies being carried out by the consultants) are completed and findings submitted, I see nothing new developing in the meantime,” says Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and a former ASEAN official.

ASEAN membership, when it comes about, will mean both promises and challenges for the decade-old Timorese state. Evanescent gas (and some oil) riches have lifted Timorese GDP per capita to the improbable (and unreal) level of US$9,500. Those numbers are based on recent inflows of natural resource revenues. But outside Dili and Baucau, most Timorese are dirt-poor subsistence farmers, often without electricity or clean running water.

The gas could run out as early as the mid 2020’s, although Timor hopes to tap into a bigger but disputed field in waters between Timor and northern Australia, sooner rather than later. It also hopes to pipe this same gas to Timor – which is lacking in infrastructure of almost every kind – for processing there in the hope that it will generate spin-off business and expertise for its own economy.

Timor-Leste is hoping to develop other sectors of what is a resource dependent economy. Its only other export of note is coffee. Lack of adequate infrastructure for air access means the country attracts few tourists, a potential left unharnessed given the country’s white sand beaches, offshore whale-watching and inland mountain hiking and biking possibilities.

ASEAN is scheduled to become an integrated economic community by 2015, which adds urgency to Timor-Leste’s bid to join the association.

Some local Timorese NGOs, such as the respected think-tank La’o Hamutuk, have warned that Timor’s resource-dependent, subsistence economy is not ready for any EU-style single market.

But then, according to a new study by CIMB, ASEAN is poorly-placed to realise those 2015 goals, given the divergence in the economices of member-states.

Either way, for Timor-Leste, getting inside the club is seen as a crucial imperative, no matter how the 2015 goals pan out. Former President Ramos Horta says that “regional integration always brings

benefits to all parties in terms of investment, trade, tourism, and education.”

– Roughneen has reported from Timor-Leste several times, most recently during the 2012 parliamentary elections

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