Subject: Asia Times: E Timor's slow ASEAN embrace

Southeast Asia

May 4, 2006  SPEAKING FREELY East Timor's slow ASEAN embrace By Loro Horta

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When the foreign ministers from the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Bali last month, East Timor's admission into the 10-member regional grouping was again on the agenda. And, once again, Asia's newest country (whose official name is Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) maintained its observer status in the influential regional grouping.

Some media speculated that ASEAN'S decision to delay East Timor's immediate admission and take a gradual approach to its integration into the grouping was due to pressures from certain member states, which for various political reasons opposed and threatened to use their veto power to block East Timor's future membership.

It was said that Myanmar's military-run government was particularly opposed because of Timorese President Xanana Gusmao's known close ties to its political opposition. However, the real reasons behind East Timor's delayed admission are far more prosaic.

Burdened by its long history of foreign occupation, East Timor simply lacks the human and financial resources to manage ASEAN membership. Consider that every year ASEAN stages no fewer than 620 different meetings, ranging widely from foreign relations to agriculture to old-fashioned cultural exchanges, at great expense. Yet East Timor still lacks technical expertise in most of these fields, not to mention enough people with a decent command of the English language - ASEAN's lingua franca.

Therefore, ASEAN'S measured approach to East Timor's integration makes good sense and is actually quite welcomed by the leadership in Dili. As East Timor moves to consolidate its bureaucracy and develop its technical infrastructure, the number of meetings to be attended will gradually increase, and its senior government representatives are scheduled to start participating soon in more sensitive security-related discussions. In that direction, East Timor has already signed on to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), an influential regional strategic talk shop, and is soon expected to sign ASEAN's Treaty of Amity.

The fact that East Timor was allowed to join the ARF, for instance, clearly indicates that the reports of Myanmar's opposition to its accession bid are entirely misinformed. Last June, East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta, was extremely well received during his visit to Yangon, where he met with the head of Myanmar's military junta and other senior officials.

In fact, Myanmar has shifted its initial objection into a position of support. There's a catch, of course. Yangon believes that once East Timor formally joins ASEAN it will be bound by the grouping's principle of "non-interference" in member countries' internal affairs and hence will need to abstain from contacting Myanmar's isolated political opposition, including detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

More pressing are East Timor's financial constraints. Attending all of ASEAN's 620 or so meetings a year would incur astronomical expenses for a country still struggling to repair damages and get basic infrastructure in place. As an ASEAN member, East Timor would be expected to host some of these meetings, which, depending on their importance, can cost millions of dollars and would require an expensive upgrade of the country's virtually non-existent conference facilities.

The Timorese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' total budget for the fiscal year 2006 was a mere US$5 million. In addition to hosting meetings, ASEAN membership requires that members open embassies in all 10 ASEAN nations; at present East Timor has only nine embassies and two consulates worldwide, including embassies in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

Expanding the diplomatic service will not only pose financial challenges, but will also put a heavy strain on severely limited human resources. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs currently employs a mere 85 people, both overseas and domestically, and of these only 55 are actually diplomats. Two of the country's newly established foreign embassies have not been able to open because of a lack of suitable candidates to staff the missions.

Four years after achieving independence, East Timor is still eager to join ASEAN. It is anticipated that by 2010, with expected major increases in economic growth derived from economic restructuring and the expansion of the oil sector, that Asia's newest nation will be financially fit enough to accede. The government doubled its annual budget in 2006, from $120 million to $230 million, and now plans to open embassies in Bangkok and Manila next year.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also in the process of establishing a task force to deal with the challenges of membership, and has started organizing some limited international meetings, including, perhaps appropriately, the UN Decolonization meeting this year.

There is no regional objection to East Timor's accession to ASEAN; only resource constraints are holding it back. But it's only a matter of time before the current ASEAN 10 grows into the ASEAN 11, with East Timor as the group's newest proud member.

Loro Horta is a master's degree candidate at Nanyang Technology University's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies based in Singapore. He previously worked as an adviser to the Timorese Defense Department and is the son of Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta. The views expressed here are his own.

(Copyright 2006 Loro Horta.)

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