Timor Leste rethinks its accession bid if Asean cannot handle Myanmar issue

Timor-Leste has been working on obtaining full membership of Asean since it submitted an application in 2011, during Indonesia's Asean chairmanship.

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

The Jakarta Post


Timor-Leste politician Xanana Gusmao gestures after voting during the general election in Dili, on May 21, 2023. PHOTO: AFP/THE JAKARTA POST

August 7, 2023

JAKARTA – Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão has said that the country would reconsider joining ASEAN if the bloc is unable to solve the conflict in Myanmar.

Xanana said that as a country that had adopted democracy, Timor-Leste could not accept military junta regimes anywhere and could not ignore human rights violations in Myanmar.

“Timor-Leste will not be joining the ASEAN if ASEAN cannot convince the military junta in Myanmar [to end the conflict],” Xanana said in a statement on Thursday.

ASEAN and Myamnar’s junta agreed on a peace initiative for Myanmar, the Five-Point Consensus, in April 2021, but its implementation has been sluggish due to a lack of commitment from the junta.

Xanana said that ASEAN’s inability to sit together to end the conflict in Myanmar would mean that “Timor-Leste cannot trust ASEAN. This is our government position”. His statement came shortly after his meeting with Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta.

Timor-Leste, which shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, has been working on obtaining full membership of ASEAN since it submitted an application in 2011, during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship.

Despite its geographic location in Southeast Asia, the small island nation had struggled to get a nod from ASEAN until late 2022, when the 10-country bloc agreed in principle to admit Timor-Leste as the group’s 11th member.

Read also: Timor Leste gets ASEAN nod as Myanmar inaction continues

Timor-Leste’s small economy with a gross domestic product (GDP) of about US$2.45 billion in 2022 has been one of the stumbling blocks in its membership bid.

At the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo in May, a road map was agreed by all ASEAN member states that covers Timor-Leste’s obligations regarding ASEAN’s three key political security, economy and sociocultural pillars.

When asked for a response from Indonesia as the ASEAN chair regarding Xanana’s statement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said on Saturday: “Hopefully, in leading up to the upcoming ASEAN Summit, we may get more clarity on this issue.”

Jakarta is set to host the 43rd ASEAN Summit early next month.

Xanana returned as prime minister of Timor-Leste in July 2023 after his political party the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) won 41 percent of the vote with 31 seats in the parliament in the May 21 elections. Xanana was a rebel fighter during Indonesia’s occupation of then-East Timor, and after independence in 2002 he became Timor-Leste’s president until 2007 and then prime minister from 2007 to 2015.

Experts have interpreted his latest statement as an indication that Timor-Leste is actually still evaluating its decision to join the ASEAN, which may also affect how the 10 members view Timor-Leste’s application.

Read also: Onus on Timor-Leste to seal ASEAN deal

Gadjah Mada University international relations researcher Randy Nandyatama said that the statement showed that Timor-Leste’s own political landscape did not fully support it becoming a full ASEAN member. This indication, he said, came while some ASEAN member states still signaled that they thought Timor-Leste did not yet have the required level and capabilities to be fully involved with ASEAN as a member.

“By publicly criticizing ASEAN, Timor-Leste runs the risk of making other relatively new ASEAN member states like Cambodia that have signaled support [for Timor-Leste’s bid] change their minds,” Randy said on Saturday

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior international relations expert from the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), described Xanana’s remarks as “irresponsible” given that it was Timor-Leste that wanted to join ASEAN in the first place.

“I think the statement is unsympathetic, especially to Indonesia, which has been very supportive of Timor-Leste’s membership bid,” Dewi said on Saturday.

She predicted that ASEAN member states would take note of Xanana’s latest statement when considering how committed Timor-Leste is to regional cooperation and how serious it would be in implementing the road map to full membership of ASEAN.

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