Timor-Leste: Choosing Between ASEAN and Burmese Reform? – The Irrawaddy


What's cooking in Timor? Homeskills training course, Aileu, Timor-Leste. (Photo: Simon Roughneen, July 2009)

Despite rumors that its United Nations ambassador was sacked for voting to support a Dec. 23 General Assembly resolution condemning human rights abuses in Burma, the tiny Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste says it continues to back reform in Burma.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, Timor-Lester Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa said: “We remain committed to promoting democracy and human rights in Myanmar [Burma] and internationally.”

Denying reports that former UN Ambassador Nelson Santos was removed due to a disagreement on Burma policy, da Costa said that the diplomat returned to Timor-Leste because he had completed his term in office.

Just before Christmas, da Costa told the UN that he had removed Santos from his post. Santos had just voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution on human rights in Burma, which passed 86-23 with 39 abstentions. Santos was continuing Timor-Leste’s previous policy of supporting these resolutions.

Santos’ sudden dismissal sparked speculation that he was removed because the current multiparty coalition governing in Dili wants to align its Burma policy more closely with the approach taken by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Asean member-states Brunei Darussalam, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam all joined the junta representative in voting against the Dec. 23 resolution, while Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Cambodia abstained. The Philippine representative was marked absent.

“It sounds like our government is giving up on human rights and democratization in Burma. This is sending a negative signal to the international community,” said Jose Teixeira, a spokesman for the opposition Fretilin party.

Timor-Leste is hoping to join Asean by 2012. President Jose Ramos-Horta has long been a critic of the Burmese junta, and it is thought that his condemnations so rankled the generals in Napyidaw that they have held up Dili’s membership application.

Under the former Fretilin government that held power until 2007, Ramos-Horta, then serving as foreign minister, insisted that Timor-Leste would vote in favor of resolutions condemning the internal situation in Burma.

Teixeira said that he believes that a rift has opened up between Ramos-Horta and the foreign minister on this issue.

“As I understand it, the president’s position is to vote in favor of these resolutions, and Nelson Santos did so to continue a long-established policy. It appears the foreign minster wants to change this,” he said.

Santos was appointed under the Fretilin government, and Timor-Leste’s constitution states that only the president can remove ambassadors.

Teixeira noted that some Asean member-states were changing tack, now abstaining from the vote condemning abuses in Burma, instead of voting against the resolution.

“We are going the other way compared with Indonesia and Singapore,” he said.

So far, Ramos-Horta has not commented on this issue. On Feb. 5, receiving the credentials of incoming Burmese ambassador Dr U Nyan Lynn, he called for “free and fair elections” in Burma, as well as the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Timorese president added, however, that he fully “understands the challenges” faced by the Burmese government in addressing the “armed ethnic groups problems” in the country. He went on to “hail bilateral relations with Myanmar [Burma]” and added that Timor-Leste wants “to become a full member in Asean.”

It is, however, open to question whether the half-island nation, which is one of the poorest countries in Asia, has at present the technical and human resources to fulfill the requirements of Asean membership. Government ministries are staffed by well-paid foreign advisers, while the country has had a UN mission in place throughout the decade since gaining independence from Indonesia in 1999.

Indonesian rule was bitterly resisted by Timorese fighters, and it is thought that up to a third of the country’s population perished during Jakarta’s harsh quarter-century occupation of the former Portuguese colony.

International lobbying and advocacy, particularly after the notorious Santa Cruz cemetery massacre in 1991, when Indonesian soldiers killed hundreds of Timorese protesters, helped to set in motion Timor-Leste’s eventual liberation.

“International support for the freedom of Timor-Leste was essential to the country’s eventual independence. Timor-Leste’s constitution requires it to be in solidarity with oppressed people around the world,” said Charles Scheiner of La’o Hamutuk, a Dili-based NGO that monitors the activities of international organisations in Timor-Leste.

This solidarity was on full display in September 2007, when ordinary Timorese and various NGOs organized numerous demonstrations in Dili to show support for monk-led pro-democracy protests in Burma.

Meanwhile, Timor-Leste has gone without a UN representative since Nelson Santos’ departure, despite a looming UN Security Council decision on whether to extend the mandate of UNMIT, the United Nations mission in Timor-Leste.

However, both the foreign minister and the opposition spokesman said they are confident that the mission will be extended, noting a successful recent visit by a delegation representing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“We don’t see any major complications,” said Foreign Minister da Costa, adding that Dr Sofia Borges has been appointed as Timor-Leste’s new UN ambassador.

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