Timor Leste's Bid to Join Asean Faces Objections
Barry Wain - Straits Times Indonesia | March 10, 2011
Timorese men examining a house in January last year after police evicted more than 1,000 long-term squatters and sparked a rowdy protest. Various grounds have been raised for not admitting Timor Leste into Asean at this stage, but the main concern is that the mini-state is still too weak to contribute to Asean community building. (AFP Photo)
It sounds like a reconciliation script written for Hollywood.
Less than 12 years after an angry Indonesia withdrew from East Timor in an orgy of killing and destruction, Jakarta is championing the admission of the renamed, independent Timor Leste into the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) 'without reservations'.
However, the bid is likely to be rejected because of stiff resistance from Singapore and other countries, The Straits Times understands.
The Republic has registered the strongest objection and is prepared to veto Timor Leste's inclusion for at least several years, say regional officials with knowledge of the discussions, but who did not want to be named.
While various grounds have been raised for not admitting it at this stage, the chief concern is that the mini-state is still too weak to contribute to Asean community building.
The worry is Asean - sandwiched as it is between rising giants China and India - risks becoming irrelevant if it fails to integrate, especially economically, by its 2015 deadline, and Timor Leste has yet to prove it will succeed as a nation and not fall apart, the officials add.
Although they have not voiced their objections, other newer - and poorer - members of Asean are also unhappy, though for different reasons.
Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are worried about the likely diversion of aid if Timor Leste joins, the sources say, while Vietnam believes that an Asean weakened or made irrelevant by the inclusion of a country viewed as being on the brink would mean the region by default would be drawn into China's orbit.
Timor Leste is the only remaining country in South-east Asia that is not a member of Asean. Though Indonesia, the current chair of the 10-nation grouping, and Thailand support the application, Asean works by consensus, particularly on major issues, and one dissenting voice is enough to block a proposal.
Of the 10 countries in Asean, five - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - are founding members. The rest applied to join later, but it is not known if their applications encountered similar objections.
The disagreement over Timor Leste's proposed membership is likely to cause friction within Asean. Jakarta no doubt will resent Singapore's stand, especially if the Republic refuses to budge, as seems likely.
A resurgent and democratic Indonesia is using the issue to help it regain the de facto leadership of Asean, which it lost in the domestic turmoil that followed President Suharto's downfall in 1998. Jakarta has provided Dili with technical and diplomatic advice on steps to gain Asean membership.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa acknowledges that some members believe Timor Leste's entry may affect Asean plans to create a single regional economic market in the next four years. But, he said, 'Indonesia is part of those who believe the case on the contrary'.
Timor Leste has stressed the public relations value of joining Asean in view of the bitter past, appealing to the 'strong sympathy and solidarity towards East Timor' in the region.
But that sentiment has clashed with a hard-nosed assessment of conditions in Timor Leste, which sees a country 'hovering on the brink of becoming a failed state', as one South-east Asian official put it.
Dili officials concede they are not really ready for Asean membership, but argue that enthusiasm will carry them along and that they can learn on the job.
But critics worry about the country's slow progress in building institutions and developing human capital since independence in 2002.
They note that Asean has a dense network of legal obligations, particularly in the area of economic integration, which is the heart of Asean's overall integration efforts. Timor Leste, as a member, would inevitably seek exemptions or delays, they reason, threatening to derail community ambitions.
Several Asean countries, including Indonesia and Thailand, are already finding it difficult to meet their integration obligations, according to one official.
If Timor Leste were granted exemptions, others would ask for them, too, due to domestic political pressures, he said.
The nightmare scenario: 'The entire integration project will unravel and Southeast Asia will be squeezed into irrelevance.'
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 2553 5055.