Why Timor-Leste should join ASEAN now

Author: President J. Ramos-Horta, Timor-Leste

Our desire to join ASEAN is a long-standing one and in the last 10 years we have shown unequivocal determination to join the organisation.

Geographically, we are very much part of Southeast Asia. Indonesia has shown statesmanship, vision and a real sense of history by being among those who are most strongly advocating for Timor-Leste’s early membership — as early as this year.

Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, The Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar have expressed public support. When I visited Cambodia a few weeks ago, I was told by Prime Minister Hun Sen that in preparation for Cambodia’s 2012 chairmanship of ASEAN, they are already making additional arrangements to accommodate Timor-Leste as the 11th member. Prime Minister Hun Sen said in his usual straightforward way: ‘If Indonesia is so supportive of Timor-Leste joining ASEAN now, why should any of us object?’ Even Myanmar has expressed support for an early membership in spite of our criticisms of the regime’s human rights record. But Singapore, while agreeing with Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership, objects to early membership as, it argues, Timor-Leste is not yet ready to absorb the many challenges and complexities of ASEAN membership. Below I argue why Timor-Leste is ready to join ASEAN.

Social, economic, political and security conditions

According to the just-released UNDP Human Development Report 2011, 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.

We have moved ahead of some older ASEAN members like Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, and we are just behind Vietnam in the overall measure of human development. Timor-Leste, with a ranking of 120 out of 169 countries, is above Lao PDR (122), Cambodia (124), Myanmar (132).

Timor-Leste is also ranked higher than Papua New Guinea (137) and most Sub-Saharan African countries; notably Kenya (128), Nigeria (142), Angola (146) and Mozambique (165).
School enrolment jumped from a modest 63 per cent in 2006 to 82.7 per cent in 2009. Some major population centres are now free of illiteracy, namely the Oe-Cussi and Manatuto Districts, Atauro Island, totalling more than 100,00 people who have graduated from illiteracy to functioning literacy in the last two years. Illiteracy will be eliminated in Timor-Leste by 2015.

Child mortality and infant mortality under five, as well as post-birth mother mortality, have been halved. Incidences of malaria, dengue and poverty have decreased significantly in the last four years. According to the WHO, Timor-Leste, with less than one case of leprosy per 10,000 people, is now free from this centuries-old disease.

The above-mentioned UNDP Report points out that from 2005−10,Timor-Leste’s life expectancy at birth increased by more than two years and now averages 62.1 years. Its GNP per capita increased 228 per cent during the same period to more than US$5,000.

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. Our economy has continued to show robust growth for four consecutive years now, and according to The Economist, Timor-Leste is among the nine fastest growing economies of the world in 2011. The political situation in Timor-Leste in the last few years has been remarkably free of tension. On the security front, unlike the situation prevailing in parts of the Asia region, Timor-Leste does not have ethnic or religious conflicts, organised crime or armed insurgency.  Like Singapore and others in the early years of independence, Timor-Leste has had to confront political and social tensions and in some instances, sporadic violence has flared up. However, we have been able to quickly overcome these spasms, that are typical in nation-building, and we have rebounded from the brief periods of crisis even stronger as the UNDP Human Development data show.

Transparency, good governance

The London-based Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) rates Timor-Leste the best performer in Asia, and third in the world, in terms of accountability and transparency in the management of our Petroleum resources.

In the pursuit of good governance and transparency, and to get rid of the worldwide phenomenon of corruption, our National Parliament has passed the Anti-Corruption Law and we since created the Anti-Corruption Commission. We have also strengthened the offices of the Ombudsman (Provedor de Justica e Direitos Humanos) as well the investigative powers of the Prosecutor-General.

With active support from Indonesia, Australia and the US, we are strengthening our national police, enabling them to better prevent, intercept and fight all forms of organised crime, ranging from sex slavery to peoples smuggling, drug trafficking and money laundering. We are fortunate in that there is no active organised crime in Timor-Leste. But we are conscious that we have to do much more in this regard so that Timor-Leste may rightly claim to be relatively free of corruption and organised crime will never able to gain a foothold here.

Democracy, human rights, foreign relations

We are proud of what we have achieved in the brief years since 2002. We have a dynamic multi-party democracy with nine parties in the National Parliament. Almost 30 per cent of the elected MPs are women, and several women hold key ministerial portfolios.

Timor-Leste stands out with its very liberal and humanist Constitution that prohibits the death penalty. We have ratified all major International Human Rights Treaties and have complied with our reporting obligations. Timor-Leste, according to Reporters Without Borders, has one of the freest media in the region.

Since our independence, we have made every effort to harmonise our foreign and security policies with those of our ASEAN neighbours. For instance, we supported every ASEAN member country or national’s candidacy to the various United Nations bodies and specialised agencies, programs, etc. This includes Singapore.

We have been sensitive to our neighbours’ views on regional and global issues, always making every effort not to stray from the ASEAN view whenever there is a consensus on a specific country situation or thematic issue.

We have friendly and pro-active relations with all emerging powers like China, India, South Africa, and Brazil while maintaining special relations with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Republic of Korea, the EU and the US, where Timor-Leste has always enjoyed strong bi-partisan support.

Our main security partners continue to be Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Japan and Portugal. Australian and Portuguese instructors train our soldiers and officers; an increasing number of young officers have undertaken or are currently undertaking advanced training in Australia, Indonesia, Japan and Portugal.

Timor-Leste police officers have served and are serving with the United Nations in the Balkans and Africa. Soon, a significant number of Timor-Leste army engineers will be deployed in Lebanon as part of a Portuguese engineering group. Dozens of our compatriots are serving as UN Volunteers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, DR Congo and Afghanistan.

As poor as we are, we have nevertheless provided humanitarian assistance to countries, rich and poor, afflicted by natural calamities. We have provided in cash support to victims of natural disasters in Indonesia, Myanmar, China, Madeira Islands (Portugal), Haiti, Brazil and Australia, totalling close to US$5 million in the last three years.

In the past decade, we haven’t had a single diplomatic or security incident involving any of our neighbours. Relations with Indonesia, our nearest neighbour, with whom we share land and sea borders, are exemplary.

In view of Timor-Leste’s financial circumstance and its proven ability to engage regionally and internationally, Timor-Leste is ready to join ASEAN this or next year. We concede we have many weaknesses and shortcomings. But ASEAN could admit Timor-Leste now and give us a five to ten year transition period, during which we would expand efforts to catch up to the more advanced ASEAN members. This would make sense, in line with past ASEAN practice in relation to other members and in line with the European Union practice in admitting new members and supporting them until they are able to live up fully to their obligations. ASEAN fellow members should not have to worry about any financial costs as Timor-Leste will not beg for economic or financial support.

José Ramos-Horta is the President of Timor-Leste.

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  • While reading this article one feels that East Timor’s problem was with Suharto rather than Indonesia. (For a while the Christian-Muslim, Javanese-non Javanese conflicts and the associated persecution that played a role in partition fall off the radar.) Had Suharto been around as a strong man East Timor could not have been friendly with Indonesia.

    One wonders if the East Timorese could have out-waited Suharto and avoided all the costs of nation-building? Contrary to the rosy picture presented by the President, Damien Kingsbury @ EAF (May 17) identifies a number of serious challenges facing the nascent nation.

  • What East Timor has achieved in the past 11/12 years since the referendum in 1999, is truly remakable. East Timor would be a good influence to other ASEAN members. Its track record on human rights and the respect for democratic processes, is indeed something that other ASEAN members can learn from.

  • richard

    I Think …..the problem is Timor Leste is out of their League…that simple…., Timor Leste GDP only 4.300 million USD…compared even the poorest country in ASEAN have 100.000 million USD….so it would be counter productive with all members in ASEAN…..for example with Malaysia GDP 400.000 million USD , Singapore 240.000 Million USD , Philiphines 300.000 million USD or even with indonesia with 900.000 million USD

    • Hi Richard. As the last part of this article has made clear, if even the other countries have higher GDP East Timor will not beg for financial assistance. Hence, you don’t have to worry about it.

      My questions are: why should East Timor join ASEAN? What is so special about being a member of it?
      How if East Timor does not want to join ASEAN anymore if it’s already frustrated by with all the requirements?
      Do you think East Timor will remain poor as it is now?
      What do you think if East Timor had GDP as high as the other ASEAN members?

      If East Timor had high a GDP as the other ASEAN members given that its performance on a number of fronts and its involvement in International communities that are better than the other ASEAN members I don’t think it would want to Join ASEAN. It might prefer to join the commonwealth that just recently offered an option of membership.

      • Lestat

        Agree with you Keh Ong. Now our state has been allocated more than $5 billion to built industrial city in enclave of Oecusse (in the west of Timor)the objectives are to enhance peoples income including state. this project would absorb approximately 6000 workers.
        On the other hand, parliament has decided to allocate $5 billion dollar to build refinery and supply base in west coast of Timor-Leste. it would attract many investments from overseas to invest and I’m sure that it would change our peoples’ life including the interpretation from other peoples that we are the poorest country with lowest GDP.