The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Timor Leste on the ASEAN waiting list

Aspiring ASEAN member Timor Leste appears likely to remain on the outside for at least another year, as Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the tiny country has not yet done enough to justify entry to the 10-member bloc.

Timor Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao waves after voting in Dili in a 2007 election. Photo: AFPTimor Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao waves after voting in Dili in a 2007 election. Photo: AFP

In preparation for taking the helm of the group in 2014, the government has been in discussions with regional experts regarding Timor Leste’s application, ASEAN Affairs Department deputy director U Aung Htoo said.

However, the government believes Timor Leste has a number of shortcomings that make joining the group in 2014 impossible.

One example, U Aung Htoo said, is that Timor Leste has failed to build embassies in all 10 ASEAN member nations, a prerequisite under the current entry requirements. Timor Leste does not have an embassy in Myanmar but has said it plans to build one in Nay Pyi Taw.

“Timor Leste needs to follow the ASEAN Charter and Road Map but they are not ready for that,” U Aung Htoo said.

Jim Della-Giacoma, the International Crisis Group's project director for Southeast Asia, said building, staffing and operating the embassies would entail “considerable costs” to Timor Leste, whose economy is slowly recovering from a bloody 25-year struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Mr Della-Giacoma said Timor Leste remains the “poor cousin of geographic Southeast Asia” and sending representatives to numerous ASEAN meetings and summits, of which there are more than 1000 each year, would be a financial burden.

Its lack of infrastructure, including road and air links, means it would also not be in a position to host large meetings of ASEAN officials.

In September, Timor Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao spent five days in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw in an attempt to bolster his country’s relations with Myanmar. Though the trip was received front-page coverage in state-run newspapers for four straight days, Mr Della-Giacoma said it is unlikely to have a significant impact on bilateral ties.

“There is little diplomatic solidarity between these two very different countries,” said Mr Della-Giacoma.

Other ASEAN members have said they support the idea of Timor Leste joining the group, which now encompasses more than 600 million people and has an economy of more than US$2 trillion.

Indonesia, which brutally occupied Timor Leste from December 1975 to October 1999, has been the most supportive of Timor Leste’s push for membership, and was chair of ASEAN in 2011 when Timor Leste submitted its formal application to join.

Despite this support from one of the bloc’s heavyweights, Timor Leste is likely to encounter opposition from other quarters.

“There are a number of key ASEAN member states that do not consider Timor-Leste ready to join ASEAN,” said Dr Hank Lim, a senior research fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

No country has been stronger in its opposition than Singapore, which has argued that Timor Leste would provide little to the group and would instead be a substantial economic burden as the bloc enters the final stages of preparation for the ASEAN Economic Community.

Timor Leste has a population of 1.2 million and a GDP of $1.29 billion in 2012, according to figures from the World Bank. Its economy is less than 15 percent of the size of ASEAN’s next-smallest, Laos, which has a GDP of $9.2 billion. The city-state of Singapore, by contrast, is an economic powerhouse with a population of 5.2 million and a GDP of $274.7 billion.

Though Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in September that his country would not block Timor Leste’s bid to join ASEAN but that it required “careful consideration” before approval.

“At the end of the day,” said Danny Chian Siong Lee, director for Community Affairs Development at the ASEAN Secretariat, “we want to make sure that Timor-Leste’s membership will bring the most benefits to its people, while managing the impact effectively.”