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Should East Timor join ASEAN?

By Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira - posted Wednesday, 25 May 2011

In March this year, East Timor officially submitted its application to the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat to join the organization. If the application is successful, Timor Leste will become ASEAN`s 11th member.

To date East Timor’s application has gained considerable support from a number of the ASEAN member states like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippine, Malaysia including Indonesia, the former occupier of East Timor from 1975-1999. Indonesia has been vocal in advocating for East Timor’s bid to join ASEAN despite the historical animosity between the two countries, dating back to East Timor’s separation from Indonesia in 1999.

However, East Timor’s chance of joining ASEAN has been increasingly uncertain after Singapore voiced its objection. It is argued that currently East Timor is still experiencing a lack of capable human resources which enable the country to effectively take part in at least the 1000 or more ASEAN meetings that are held annually. They further argued that economically East Timor is not ready to compete both regionally and internationally, hence preparations are needed prior to the ascension.


The assumption is that any hasty decision to welcome East-Timor into ASEAN will further burden the organization which is being overwhelmed by problems faced by some of its members, in particular Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

Like any organization the acceptance of any member has to be approved by all member countries. Article 6 (3) of the ASEAN Charter states that “admission shall be decided by consensus by the ASEAN Summit, upon the recommendation of the ASEAN Coordinating Council.” This implies that for East Timor to be accepted into ASEAN, consensus has to be reached amongst all member countries of ASEAN. This also suggests that East-Timor must also fulfill all criteria prescribed by ASEAN for the membership to be fully considered.

Amongst the opinions being circulated, some argue that East Timor should be incorporated into ASEAN now rather than later. Writing in the Jakarta post on 5 May 2011, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Research Professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) argued that currently East Timor is blessed with oil and gas, and enjoys the goodwill and support of the international community. Furthermore, with the functioning democracy that has taken roots in East Timor, the country will definitely have no trouble with ASEAN values prescribed in the Charter.

Similar arguments are made by East Timor president, Jose Ramos Horta. Writing in the East Asia Forum on 16 May 2011, Horta argued that since achieving independence in 2002, East Timor has made significant progress in areas of human rights, good governance, human rights, foreign relations, social, economic, political and security conditions. According to Horta, in comparison with countries like Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, East Timor has performed extremely well and is on the right track to achieve the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) 2015.

From East Timor’s point of view, the ascension to ASEAN will help East Timor to gain a greater access to ASEAN markets, increase trade and accelerate economic development, which is vital to poverty alleviation.

Regardless of any opinion on this subject, there are a number of good reasons of why East Timor should not rush to join ASEAN.


First it is often argued that the East Timor’s ascension to ASEAN will further strengthen democratic principles and respect for human rights. While trade and economic cooperation is making headway, ASEAN has been criticized for intransigence when it comes to human rights issue. For instance, Chia Thye Poh was the Singapore's longest-held political prisoner. He was arrested in 1966 without charge until the restrictions limiting his civil and political rights were lifted in 1998. Adding to that the suppression of human rights activists (eg Aung San Suu Kyi) and persecution of ethnic minority groups (eg the Chin, Rohingya and Karen) in Burma under the JUNTA regime is a clear violation of the ASEAN charter, and yet none of these issues has been properly addressed by ASEAN forum.

Other issues include human trafficking, money laundering, child prostitution and others. Despite adhering to human rights principles, ASEAN failed to address those issues. The policy of appeasement towards one another subsequently caused one observer to label ASEAN as “big on words but small on action” (BBC, 2010). The concept of Asian values has often been used as a justification to counter western criticisms against ASEAN’s inaction on those issues.

Furthermore, the inability of ASEAN to resolve the regional tensions (eg the recent conflict between Cambodia and Thailand) clearly demonstrates some of the weaknesses on the part of ASEAN to effectively deal with its members and foster peace and security within the region.

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About the Author

Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira is pursuing an M.Sc in International Development at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

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