11 July 2024

Franking speaking, Timor Leste’s membership in Asean is becoming increasingly problematic. This is mainly due to the extensive comments by the country’s leaders on the role of Asean and the situation in Myanmar. Dili has been trying to join Asean since it gained independence in 2000 although, at this stage, there has not been any clear indicator whether they feel as strongly about Asean as before.

These days, the East Timorese leaders have perceived themselves as the world’s newest democracy and that this should be their rightful place. From Dili’s standpoint, Asean is still wanting in terms of being a democratic institution as it has non-democratic members.

The bloc has agreed in principle to admit the island nation as its eleventh member in 2022 but without a specific timeframe. Dili has to follow the roadmap adopted by Asean before it can join the bloc. Timor Leste has been an observer to Asean since 2022 following its official request to be a member in 2021.

Of late, repeated comments by the current leaders including President Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Gusmao Xanana on the role of Asean and Myanmar’s crisis clearly demonstrate that Dili has been too proud as a democracy to get involved in the Asean family.

In August, Gusmao announced that his country would reconsider joining Asean if the bloc could not find a resolution to the Myanmar conflict. His comment rattled his Asean colleagues to the bone, who considered his views both inappropriate and premature. Naypyitaw decided to expel East Timor’s top diplomat in Yangon after Timor joined a long list of countries in meeting with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG),

For the past decade, its Asean membership has been delayed for technical reasons and overall non-preparedness. However, if such vitriol continues unabated, it would definitely be self-inflicted posturing, which would be considered odd for a potential Asean member.

After all, Timor Leste is stilling trying to get Asean’s consensus for its admission to jjoin the bloc within two years. Truth be told, Xanana told his Asean colleagues at the special Asean-Japan Summit held recently in Tokyo that his country hopes to become a full member in 2025.

Officials from Dili have been attending Asean meetings but without any voting rights to prepare for eventual membership. It has taken years for Asean senior officials to dispatch teams on fact-finding missions examine the conditions for Timor Leste’s full Asean admission in all three pillars—political/security, economic, social/culture.

Adding salt to the wounds, President Ramos has also shown his distaste for the Asean way of doing things in Myanmar. He has openly courted the Nation Unity Government and its representatives. He has also welcomed the NUG officials to his country and shown strong support for the NUG’s activities. Timor Leste’s maverick’s comments and actions have damaged the country’s opportunity to join the Asean family faster, although consensus has been reached to admit Dili when it has fulfilled its capacity-building programme.

Within Asean, enlargement can be a double-edge sword. It can strength or weaken the bloc. It would mean one more vote is added to the consensus. If Timor Leste continues on the same trajectory it has thus far pursued, there will be an impasse because the democratic values it places on certain issues especially on the civil and political rights could be problematic. Furthermore, it could easily clash with other Asean countries.

When Asean brought in four new members between 1995-1997 it faced lot of uncertainties concerning the decision-making process, reaching consensus and the formulation of Asean external relations. However, strange as it may seem, the former Indochinese countries have adjusted quickly and able been to integrate with Asean without squabbling about their political and economic differences.

by Kavi Chongkittavorn