06 November 2017

East Timor's Accession to ASEAN Treaty Still Resisted 15 Years After Restoration of Independence

Logo of Association of South East Asian Nations
ETLJB 06 November 2017 - All of the Southeast Asian States are full members of ASEAN, except East Timor (Timor-Leste), even though it has been 15 years since the restoration of independence to the small republic.

Last week, ETLJB published a post querying why accession to the ASEAN Treaty had not happened yet. This issue attracted more attention than anticipated and so it is worth articulating the possible scenarios which might explain why the benefits of ASEAN have so far been denied to the East Timorese people.

As recently 5 November 2017, the problem of East Timor's accession to ASEAN has again been in the spotlight with reports of the arrest and detention of East Timorese civil society organisations representatives at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples Forum (ACSC/APF).

It has also just been reported (5 November 2017) by ABS CBN News that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has reached a decision to refrain from admitting East Timor to the regional grouping within the year according to ASEAN diplomatic sources.

Firstly, it may be worth considering some basic principles and ideas in the ASEAN Treaty.

The ASEAN Charter serves as a firm foundation in achieving the ASEAN Community by providing legal status and institutional framework for ASEAN. It also codifies ASEAN norms, rules and values; sets clear targets for ASEAN; and presents accountability and compliance.

The ASEAN Charter entered into force on 15 December 2008. A gathering of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers was held at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta to mark this very historic occasion for ASEAN.

With the entry into force of the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN will henceforth operate under a new legal framework and establish a number of new organs to boost its community-building process.

In effect, the ASEAN Charter has become a legally binding agreement among the 10 ASEAN Member States. It will also be registered with the Secretariat of the United Nations, pursuant to Article 102, Paragraph 1 of the Charter of the United Nations.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established on 8 August 1967 in Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) by the founding States of ASEAN, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Brunei Darussalam then joined on 7 January 1984, Viet Nam on 28 July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999, making up what is today the ten Member States of ASEAN.

In their relations with one another, the ASEAN Member States have adopted the following fundamental principles, as contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) of 1976:
  1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
  2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
  3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
  4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner;
  5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
  6. Effective cooperation among themselves.
As set out in the ASEAN Declaration, the aims and purposes of ASEAN are:
  1. To accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavours in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian Nations;
  2. To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter;
  3. To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields;
  4. To provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities in the educational, professional, technical and administrative spheres;
  5. To collaborate more effectively for the greater utilisation of their agriculture and industries, the expansion of their trade, including the study of the problems of international commodity trade, the improvement of their transportation and communications facilities and the raising of the living standards of their peoples;
  6. To promote Southeast Asian studies; and
  7. To maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes, and explore all avenues for even closer cooperation among themselves.
As with other regional treaties, there are numerous benefits for participating States; both political and economic. Regional treaties contribute to regional stability and amity between States of many diverse natures and cultures.

The Bangkok Post reported recently on new efforts by the Government of East Timor to join ASEAN.  The issue is obvious. Why is East Timor, clearly a Southeast Asian nation that has pursued ASEAN membership for many years, denied the benefits under the Treaty and the regional cooperation with other Southeast Asian States? 

Despite East Timor’s efforts, ASEAN has sent mixed messages on the matter of the accession to the regional bloc. In December 2012, then ASEAN Secretary-General visited Timor Leste and expressed hope that it would become ASEAN’s 11th member. But this is yet to be realised. Founding members like Indonesia and the Philippines remain very supportive, at least publicly. Newer members Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar also support Timor-Leste.  ASEAN's Chairman reiterated that Timor’s application was still “under study by the relevant senior officials” and affirmed that ASEAN was committed to Timor’s capacity-building.

Five years down the track and still no ASEAN membership for East Timor.

So, who is resisting East Timor's membership of ASEAN and what grounds?

1. Singapore Objection
It has been reported in the media that Singapore had articulated fears that East Timor would weigh down on the ASEAN economic community and needed more time to ready itself for the new addition.

2. Myanmar Objection
It has also been reported that Myanmar vehemently objected to East Timor's membership of ASEAN on political grounds. Myanmar even objected to the proposal to grant East Timor observer status at ASEAN.

The Myanmar objection has been explained in terms of the historical relationship East Timorese leaders' had in "past dealings" with Myanmar opposition forces led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi when East Timor was still under Indonesian control.

Myanmar officials said these "solidarity" meetings apparently continued after East Timor had voted for independence and was under interim United Nations administration from 1999.

It has also been reported that Myanmar vehemently objected to East Timor's membership of ASEAN on political grounds. Myanmar even objected to the proposal to grant East Timor observer status at ASEAN. In 2002, the issue was raised during a meeting of foreign ministers of the 10-member regional grouping in Thailand during which Myanmar objected to a proposal to grant East Timor observer status to the association.The Myanmar objection has been explained in terms of the historical relationship East Timorese leaders' had in "past dealings" with Myanmar opposition forces led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi when East Timor was still under Indonesian control.

Myanmar officials said these "solidarity" meetings apparently continued after East Timor had voted for independence and was under interim United Nations administration from 1999.

There was no consensus on how East Timor could participate in ASEAN.

3. Early Observations from Timorese Leaders on ASEAN: Accomplices with Indonesia during illegal occupation of East Timor
Myanmar's objection seems to be rooted also in East Timor's inconsistent, at times belittling, view on ASEAN. In October 1999, for example, Jose Ramos Horta stated an independent East Timor would resist any attempt by Southeast Asian nations to bring it within their sphere of influence.

"We are one of the South Pacific nations, not part of ASEAN," Horta said, as quoted by AFP during a fundraising lunch in Sydney on October 15, 1999.

When discussing regional cooperation, East Timor would liaise with South Pacific nations, he said.

"We can accept Australian command, we can accept New Zealand command, we can accept Fiji command," he said. "We will not accept anyone from the ASEAN countries because they're not neutral; they've been accomplices of Indonesia." [emphasis added]

Horta then changed his ASEAN policy and no longer rejecting the idea of being part of ASEAN, he said East Timor needed between three years to five years before joining the group. Horta said there was a consensus in East Timor about the importance of ASEAN and all the political parties (in East Timor) were enthusiastic about joining.

4. Indonesia's Formal Position
Indonesia's formal stance regarding East Timor's relations to ASEAN is consistent with the ASEAN Declaration, which states that "the Association is open for participation by all states in the Southeast Asian region subscribing to the aforementioned aims, principles and purposes."

5. Recent Developments from Government of East Timor
In 2011, the Council of Ministers approved  Government Resolution Proposal approving the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia

It was noted then that "The accession of Timor-Leste to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a priority of the IV Constitutional Government, as well as the promotion of good relations with all nations."

By 2014, it appears that East Timor had made all of the preliminary preparations for accession. The Council of Ministers confirmed that:

The Minister of State and for Foreign Affairs, along with the Secretary of State for ASEAN Affairs, presented to the Council of Ministers the current status of the process of accession of Timor-Leste to join ASEAN. Various documents were presented, including the report on the Accession Process of Timor-Leste to ASEAN; Alertness of Timor-Leste and preliminary summary on the Study of the Policy and Community Security in ASEAN (ASEAN Political-Security Community) and Readiness of Timor-Leste; the list of duties, rights and responsibilities of the Member States of ASEAN; information on the three pillars of ASEAN (Political-Security, Economic and Socio-cultural); and information on Data Collection on Cooperation for the accession of Timor-Leste to ASEAN.

6. Arrest of East Timorese Nationals in Philippines 2017
Continuing unexplained problems have arisen of late that have again drawn attention to East Timor and ASEAN at the weekend past after immigration authorities from host country Philippines detained for nearly 12 hours four East Timorese nationals who flew in to attend the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples Forum.

Philippines, under Duterte, has become a nation without the rule of law yet its membership of ASEAN is never questioned due to the policy of non-interference. But the atrocities committed by the Philippine State and the chaos of extrajudicial killings stand in stark contrast to the relative longer-term stability of East Timor and the continuing rule of law there.

One might draw an analogy with what is happening in Myanmar of late. It is also experiencing a genocide and there is chaos and extrajudicial killings there as well so its a bit hypocritical for Myanmar to sustain continuing objections to East Timor's accession to ASEAN based on past associations with dissidents struggling against the horrors of the military regime in Myanmar.

Hopes of reform and democratic transformation in Myanmar have dimmed as Aung San Suu Kyi does not yet appear to have been able to continue her democratic revolution. Again, the stark contrast between the civil peace in East Timor compared to that in Philippines and Myanmar is notable.

Singapore's early objections on economic grounds, Myanmar's objections on political grounds, historical enmity of the leaders of the revolution in East Timor to ASEAN States that acquiesced in the Indonesian genocide are all factors that may go some way towards explaining East Timor's rocky road to ASEAN.

Comments welcome. Go to Comments at foot of Post. 


[1]  East Timor’s Accession to ASEAN https://www.aseantoday.com/2017/08/east-timors-accession-to-asean/
[2] Jakarta Post 7 March 2002 To be or not to be a member of ASEAN? https://etan.org/et2002a/march/01-9/07tobe.htm
[3] 30th ASEAN Summit Chairman's Statement http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/608953/chairman-s-statement-30th-asean-summit/story/
[4] Majority of the ASEAN members support Timor-Leste: Foreign Minister da Costa
[5] East Timor PM says state is 'ready' to become ASEAN member
[6] Timor-Leste To Attend the First ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security

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