Security and Foreign Policy

The Time Is Now To Grant Timor-Leste Admission to ASEAN

Timor-Leste, Southeast Asia's newest nation, should be well on its way to becoming a member of ASEAN. Katie Dobosz Kenney explains the challenges that Timor-Leste faces internally as well as from ASEAN member states on its path to becoming a member of ASEAN.


There are 11 nations that comprise the modern geographic region of Southeast Asia and yet only 10 of these 11 are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have participated as members in this regional alliance, some since its inception 51 years ago, and others as recently as 1999. Timor-Leste is the youngest state in the region and has attempted to gain membership to the organization since the restoration of its independence in 2002, officially beginning the membership process in 2011 as a part of the Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030. To date, ASEAN membership attempts by Timor-Leste remain unsuccessful.

At a glance, the ASEAN charter lays out a set of purposes and principles that range from democratic and economic values to the protection of sovereignty, promotion of peace, and preservation of human rights. Criteria for membership includes being located in Southeast Asia, being recognized by all current member states, acceptance of and adherence to the ASEAN Charter, and able-bodied willingness to fulfill the obligations of membership.

Timor-Leste’s commitment to these obligations is fully outlined in their Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030 (SDP), a document that calls explicit attention to Timor being the only nation in the region without full membership; Timor is currently a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum. The SDP addresses and tackles Timor’s road to complete the ASEAN’s four membership criteria, two of which are already complete, namely their geographic location and the establishment of embassies in all 10 member nations. Additionally, the SDP outlines Timor’s desire to model their military after other ASEAN members, to bring “recognised expertise in economic development, small-nation management, good governance and aid effectiveness and delivery” to the organization, and to have gained admission by 2015.

With this criteria in mind, Timor’s exclusion remains a bit of a mystery: in 2016 and 2017, Timor-Leste was ranked the most democratic nation in the region by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and it’s GDP has steadily risen from $4.2 million in 2002 to $1.7 billion in 2016. Timor’s economic growth and democratic process are cited as a dramatic success story by the World Bank for a nation only in its 15th year of autonomous statehood. Timor also has the largest representation of women in government in the Asia-Pacific with 38% women in the national parliament after the 2012 elections. Additionally, the country continues to invest in infrastructure projects like roads supported through their strong relationship with the Asia Development Bank.

And these accomplishments by no means excuse much of the work that is still to be done in Timor, including a greater focus on quality of education and instruction, enforcement of laws regarding gender-based violence and violence against women, as well as agricultural infrastructure and access to clean water.  However, for a young, post-war nation, Timor-Leste has been working on tackling many of these issues through a combination of governmental policies as well as grassroots initiatives and a very active civil society. In fact in 2016, the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum was moved from Laos to Timor-Leste at the request of participating civil society organizations who felt that Laos’ poor human rights record would not allow for open and honest dialogue. This not only demonstrates Timor-Leste’s commitment to rectifying internal human rights issues, but also showcases their infrastructure’s ability to handle large-scale conferences. In 2014, they also hosted an annual Conference of the Heads of State and Governments of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries.

Timorese government hoped to be granted membership by the end of 2017 under the leadership of the Philippines, but the vote never came to fruition. Indonesia is one of their biggest advocates for membership, but other regional nations, like 2018 chair Singapore, have insisted in the past that Timor must first bolster its infrastructure, diplomatic training, and regional presence, all of which have clearly been addressed at this point in time. Outside of the region, there is nearly ubiquitous support for Timor-Leste’s membership.

Singapore will host the 32nd ASEAN Summit starting on April 25, and though Timor-Leste’s membership is not likely to make the agenda, the first scheduled meeting does concern maritime security. As Timor-Leste just ended successful conciliation with Australia over fossil fuels in the Timor Sea through the signing of a new maritime treaty, Timor-Leste’s participation will be of great value.

2018 and the summit bring an opportunity for Timor’s to further demonstrate their eligibility and adherence to ASEAN’s purposes and principles. With more than half of the prerequisites for members met, this year will be Timor’s opportunity to showcase its economic management as a small nation, as well as it’s peaceful diplomatic and democratic processes.

Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an MS in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie had developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa and the UAE. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions. 

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