Subject: JP: East Timor: To be or not to be a member of ASEAN?

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

The Jakarta Post

March 7, 2002

Online Special

East Timor: To be or not to be a member of ASEAN?

By Lela E. Madjiah

With full independence now a matter of two months away, East Timor must deal with various unanswered questions, one being its relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Although not an immediately pressing issue, it is worth pondering, given recent developments in the region, in particular with its closest neighbor, Indonesia.

The issue was raised during a meeting of foreign ministers of the 10-member regional grouping in the Thai resort of Phuket in mid-February, during which Myanmar objected to a proposal to grant East Timor observer status to the association.

In its argument, Myanmar raised East Timorese leaders' "past dealings" with Myanmar opposition forces led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi when East Timor was still under Indonesian control, Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Lauro Baja said last Thursday.

According to Baja, Myanmar officials said these "solidarity" meetings apparently continued after East Timor had voted for independence and come under interim United Nations administration.

"There was no consensus on how East Timor could participate in ASEAN," Baja said, as quoted by AFP.

ASEAN, formed in 1967, now groups Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Observer status, now enjoyed by Papua New Guinea, would allow the territory to attend ASEAN's annual ministerial meetings and hold informal consultations with the group. Since its secession from Indonesia, East Timor has attended several ASEAN meetings as an invited guest.

The Philippines, the only mainly Roman Catholic nation in the group, backs the conferral of observer status to fellow Catholic East Timor.

Indonesia, whose relations with East Timor are odd to say the least, has no objection to East Timor seeking observer status. Even if it does, Indonesia will not directly voice its stance and may "borrow" the mouth of other members to get its message across to East Timor and other ASEAN members. Indeed, Indonesia is in a very awkward position when it comes to East Timor. As a former "ruler" of the half-island country, it would be unwise for Indonesia to comment on East Timor's policy or conduct.

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."

It further states that "the Association represents the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity."

On the other hand, Myanmar's objection is not totally against the ASEAN spirit. The founding leaders of the grouping had intended to keep membership to all 10 members of the Southeast Asian nations, or ASEAN-10. Given this background, Myanmar's objection is valid, especially given 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."

Last year Horta changed his ASEAN policy. 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.

"But it will take several years. First, we must put our house in order," he was quoted by Antara/Bernama as saying after attending the 34th ASEAN ministerial meeting in Hanoi on July 24, 2001.

The question is: What is the significance of East Timor's entry into ASEAN for the other members?

Geographically and historically East Timor belongs to ASEAN. East Timor is as much a part of ASEAN as the rest of the region as it was once part of Indonesia. Once it attains full independence in May, there is no reason for other ASEAN members to reject its presence in the grouping, granted it is willing to enter.

Economically, and that is where ASEAN will focus its energy in the future, East Timor carries little significance, even compared with Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, the three countries that were the last to join the grouping and completed the so-termed ideal number. East Timor's entry into ASEAN will serve as nothing more than a good public relations gimmick for ASEAN.

East Timor, on the other hand, will benefit greatly from its ASEAN membership. As a new country, it needs all the support it can get to rebuild the devastated country and create a regional network.

Indonesia, too, will benefit from East Timor's participation in ASEAN, especially in the light of continued armed struggles in Irian Jaya and Aceh. Indonesia must not underestimate East Timor's capability to muster international support for its cause, as clearly demonstrated by its success in having international (read the West) backing for secession from Indonesia.

While economically East Timor may be insignificant, its political network cannot be ignored and many of its former supporters, including parliamentarians and NGOs, particularly in non-ASEAN countries, have indeed shifted their focus towards Irian Jaya and Aceh.

Ramos Horta himself has repeatedly called on the Indonesian government to end repressive policies in Aceh and Irian Jaya. He has even opposed the United States and Australia restoring defense ties with Indonesia.

"I don't think Indonesia needs weapons at the moment. What it needs is debt relief, it needs investments, it needs financial, economic and humanitarian assistance," Horta said in an interview with Australia's Nine Network television on Aug. 12, 2001.

There are also concerns over growing Australia's influence over East Timor, which is seen more as an Australian protectorate rather than a fully independent country. There are indications that Australia is securing a safe passage to the north and that can be achieved best with East Timor under its full influence. Under the pretext of curbing human trafficking into the continent, Australia could turn East Timor into its military base to safeguard its northern passage and to serve as a buffer to deter boatpeople and the illegal entry of immigrants.

There are even rumors of a Timor Raya (Great Timor) and while the Indonesian authorities have denied the existence of such a movement to unite East and West Timor, it should not ignore the possibility of such an idea. Again, it is Australia that would benefit greatly from a Timor Raya.

It is therefore in Indonesia's interest to take an active part in making East Timor part of ASEAN to prevent it from leaning towards Australia's interests at the expense of Indonesia's unity and ASEAN's integrity.

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