The National – Tuesday, June 28, 2011
By DIONISIO DA CRUZ PEREIRA
IN March this year, Timor-Leste officially submitted its application to the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) secretariat to join the organisation.
If the application is successful, Timor-Leste will become Asean’s 11th member.
To date Timor-Leste’s application has gained considerable support from a number of the Asean member states like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia including Indonesia, the former occupier of Timor-Leste from 1975-99.
Indonesia has been vocal in advocating for Timor-Leste’s bid to join Asean despite the historical animosity between the two countries, dating back to Timor-Leste’s separation from Indonesia in 1999.
However, Timor-Leste’s chance of joining Asean has been increasingly uncertain after Singapore voiced its objection.
It is argued that currently Timor-Leste is still experiencing a lack of capable human resources to enable the country to effectively take part in at least the 1,000 or more Asean meetings that are held each year.
They further argued that economically Timor-Leste 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 Timor-Leste into Asean will further burden the organisation which is being overwhelmed by problems faced by some of its members, in particular Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
Like any organisation, the acceptance of any member has to be approved by all member countries.
Amongst the opinions being circulated, some argue that Timor-Leste should be incorporated into Asean now rather than later.
Timor-Leste 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 Timor-Leste, the country will definitely have no trouble with Asean values prescribed in the organisation’s charter.
Last month, Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos Horta argued that since achieving independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has made significant progress in areas of human rights, good governance, human rights, foreign relations, social, economic, political and security conditions.
He said that in comparison with countries like Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Timor-Leste had performed extremely well and was on the right track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals 2015.
From Timor-Leste’s point of view, the ascension to Asean will help Timor-Leste 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 Timor-Leste should not rush to join Asean.
First it is often argued that the Timor-Leste’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 criticised 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 in Myanmar under the military junta regime is a clear violation of the Asean charter, and yet none of these issues has been properly addressed by the grouping’s forum.
Other issues include human trafficking, money laundering, child prostitution and others.
The policy of appeasement towards one another subsequently caused one observer to label Asean as “big on words but small on action”.
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 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.
The recent Thai-Cambodian conflict is one example.
Unlike the European Union where most of its members share a lot of common features – politically, socially and culturally, Asean member countries are more apprehensive towards each other.
The preamble to the Asean charter clearly states that “respecting the fundamental importance of amity and cooperation, and the principles of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, non-interference, consensus and unity in diversity”.
That suggests that any member country should refrain from criticising the internal affairs of every member country.
Second, Timor-Leste’s major infrastructure such as public transports, communication, financial institutions and other government services remain underdeveloped.
These problems will further undermine the country’s ability to improve its global competitiveness and attract foreign direct investment which is vital for economic growth.
All of these problems have been highlighted in the recent United Nations development reports this year.
Today, 90% of the state’s budget is funded by oil revenues. On the contrary, most non-oil sectors such as forestry, fishery, agriculture, tourism and others have not been properly developed.
Almost all essential goods – building materials, food items, clothing, medicines and others – are imported from overseas.
The over-reliance on imported goods has pushed prices up, creating the so called “Dutch disease” syndrome.
Right now investment law and other trade arrangements remain weak or even non-existent.
One immediate consequence of this will be that Timor-Leste might become a dumping ground for cheap goods from other Asean member countries.
This has been a major problem for many emerging economies where governments are unable to control the operation of market forces.
Economically Timor-Leste has not produced manufactured goods which would allow the country to engage in trade with other member countries of Asean.
Lack of support to engage farmers in productive farming activities has reduced the country’s ability to engage in major exporting activity.
Third, some suggest that Timor-Leste’s ascension to Asean will bring positive outcomes for the country.
Nonetheless, it must be noted that right now, Asean is pushing towards stabilising the so-called Asean Economic Community (AEC) 2015, aiming at creating economic integration in the region by 2015.
This economic integration suggests that all Asean member states will give up some of its political, social and cultural rights.
These include relaxation of trade restrictions, movement of goods and services as well as people.
While some will argue that such a move would be positive for economic development, it would also generate a number of problems including increased human trafficking, money laundering, illegal drug trading, environmental issues or even international terrorism.
A survey carried out by the Alola foundation in 2004 revealed that human trafficking has been a major problem in Timor-Leste since gaining independence.
Last, the increased number of foreign nationals is another issue.
Since 2002, there has been a large influx of foreign nationals – Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, Vietnamese and others – coming to do business in Timor-Leste despite sometimes being only on tourist visas.
Almost all well-paid construction work in Timor-Leste have been monopolised by foreign workers leaving the Timor-Lesteese to do the underpaid works.
These problems will continue to pose challenges to the country if not properly addressed.
If Timor-Leste is serious about joining Asean, it must address these challenges.
Failure to do so will further undermine Timor-Leste’s future economic development programme.
Asean membership will provide solutions to all the problems currently being faced.
Perhaps Timor-Leste should learn from the fact that presently some European countries like Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and many others have never been part of the European Union, and yet these countries have developed sophisticated trade agreements with most EU members which in turn bring mutual economic benefits.
Therefore, instead of rushing to join Asean, Timor-Leste should ask itself what membership of Asean would actually achieve for it. – onlineopinion
*Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira is pursuing a masters in international development at the University of Birmingham in UK