The Asian Voice

Joining Asean or not should not matter to Timor-Leste: Jakarta Post contributor

The writer says Timor-Leste can turn itself into a trailblazer in participatory eco-sustainability regardless of its membership into Asean.

East Timor presidential candidate Jose Ramos Horta after casting his ballot in Dili, East Timor, on April 19, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - With the landslide election of Jose Ramos Horta as president of one of the youngest democracies in the world, Timor-Leste, the moment is ripe for Asean to open its doors and welcome a new member to its family.

Timor-Leste has been waiting for this opportunity for years, with an endless list of meetings and deliberations made so far about this small nation's quest to join the bloc. So far, however, the leaders of the region have shown neither interest nor respect.

Nevertheless, it is high time for them to prove to have vision and do the right thing: promptly granting Timor-Leste's full access to the Asean family. It is not that joining this community of nations would be a panacea for the tiny nation.

After all, the Asean community is fragmented and divided in multiple ways. Different political systems, different visions and different understandings of the current geopolitical scenario are hampering the process of regional cooperation.

While talking about integration is almost akin to daydreaming in South-east Asia and forecasting an ambitious evolution of Asean just a fantasy, nevertheless, a small country like Timor-Leste could benefit immensely from joining the community.

Imagine the opportunities that would be created: more trade, better connectivity, more people-to-people relations, more tourists and definitely more investments. For Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia and current Asean chair, the formal accession of Timor-Leste to the Asean could be the hallmark of his leadership in the region. Yet it is not as simple as it seems.

Let us not forget the same contributions that Timor-Leste could offer to the region are actually stifling this nation's own prospects to join the bloc. Having Dili joining Asean would alter the difficult balance of powers existing within it. After all, we are talking about an emerging democracy that recently elected for the second time a Nobel Peace Prize winner, someone with moral authority stemming from an entire life struggle for peace and justice.

Ramos-Horta commands respect, and the international community will certainly now pay more attention to this small island nation, but this might be well feared within Asean. His principled politics and vision of the world would certainly offer a potent and different narrative from the one being proposed by several leaders of the community starting from Hun Sen's own "bulldozer" approach to politics.

Certainly no one expect miracles from Ramos-Horta if Timor-Leste joined Asean, but the respectability he earned at global level would certainly have a weight; his voice would be heard.

There is no doubt that having a flourishing democracy joining the Asean club could re-energise the aspirations of some of its other members eager to shape a more liberal and progressive vision of the bloc.

In a sense, an informal alliance could be established, a democratic front within the community that could push for some incremental steps in the direction of creating a community better capable of meeting the hopes of millions of its citizens.

Incremental steps could be made to strengthening the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the Asean Secretariat could become more open and transparent and more eager to engage the youth of the region.

Connectivity would not mean just top-down infrastructure projects, but rather it would include a genuine attempt at enhancing the common fabrics shared by millions of people in the region.

The meaning of pursuing social justice at a regional level would also assume a completely different tone and overall, fresh air might reinvigorate the process of thinking up a post-2025 vision for the bloc.

Understandably, these are the same reasons why there is little enthusiasm to welcome Timor-Leste aboard Asean and even less now that Ramos-Horta returned to active politics and got elected. Yet, if membership does not materialise this year or the next one, there is always a silver lining. Timor-Leste could even seize the momentum and instead of disappointment, they could harness the strength to forge their own fully independent course with confidence and self-respect.

Facing continuous delays in their membership to Asean, their strongest signal to the region and the world would be a withdrawal of their nation's candidacy to this community.

As a democracy, Dili was already able to attract considerable support from the international community, but a possible renunciation to the Asean's membership might even bring in more willingness to help the nation to stand alone, independently and proudly.

Timor-Leste, despite its challenges in terms of economic development and inequalities, could become of a beacon of participatory democracy, human rights and climate transition. I am not advocating just for a massive flow of foreign aid.

Timor-Leste already received considerable amounts of it, and while it worked in many ways, we know that there are several pitfalls accompanying foreign aid, those typical of all developing nations - becoming too dependent on the generosity (and interests) of the international community.

What I am instead proposing is a different course. An emerging nation that is able to work out its own issues, fight poverty and inequalities while enhancing its democratic practices, could ask for support only when it is indispensable and according to its own priorities and goals.

Strengthening its governance locally and nationally, increasing its levels of accountability and making politics more responsive to the people's needs should be the priority of President Ramos-Horta together with attracting investments to shed the country's dependency on oil and gas.

There would not be a better present to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste's independence than granting its membership to Asean. Yet if this does not happen, another path can emerge. The people could shape their future independently, far from the incongruences and frustrations of a regional group not yet capable of rising to the challenges of this era.

They would do so with the confidence that being small and uncompromised by the regional power politics and dynamics can bring. Withdrawing its candidacy to Asean would not be a sign of hopelessness and defeat for Timor-Leste, but rather the opposite.

This nation can turn itself into a trailblazer in participatory eco-sustainability, and the day might come when the Asean member states will ask for its advice on how to prosper by not compromising on social justice and without devaluing and diminishing their people's true aspirations.

  • The writer comments on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the context of Asia Pacific. The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

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