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Timor-Leste's quest to become ASEAN’s eleventh member

The small, half island nation of Timor-Leste has been on a long journey to get to where it is today. After submitting an application to join ASEAN in 2011, it seems that next year it is likely Timor-Leste will become the eleventh member of the political and economic union.

When the Portuguese withdrew from Timor in 1975 after nearly 250 years of colonial rule, it seemed that the Timorese would have their independence. Instead, what would follow was a period of bloodshed and fighting to restore independence after Indonesia claimed the land for the republic. In 1999, when an independence referendum was held by the UN, the people of Timor voted strongly in favour of independence—although they were made to fight for yet another three years, securing official independence in 2002.

The post-independence period was always going to be one of difficulty with the country having been ravaged by war for the previous 25 years. After 14 years of nation building, Timor has made prominent steps to improve its social, political and security conditions in order to be considered for admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Timor has implemented a political democracy which has seen the free and fair proceedings of multiple presidential and parliamentary elections. With Freedom House rating the level of freedom in Timor-Leste a respectable 65, Timor ranks among the highest scoring ASEAN members in terms of levels of freedom (Indonesia and the Philippines also scored 65).

In terms of security, there has been no civil unrest since 2006 when a political crisis led to the fall of the government, during which the clashing of numerous groups resulted in the deaths of around 100 people. Timor has also been left to manage its own affairs since the departures of the UN peacekeeping mission in 2012 and the Australian forces in 2013. Since these departures there has remained an air of stability.

Timor is also facing the challenge of improving its human development, especially in regards to the rights of children to attend school, eradicating domestic violence and lowering unemployment. With a young population in which the median age is only 16.9, this is a critical time for addressing their needs. These problems are not limited to Timor-Leste, but are also faced across the region and among ASEAN member countries.

Timor is in a good position to address these problems. With a stable government and an active civil society, there is a clear pathway to improving the lives of future generations. Seeking a greater involvement in the region—both diplomatically and economically—has been identified by the nation’s leaders as an important step to take in this pursuit.

Timor’s economic standing is its biggest concern when it comes to gaining membership into ASEAN. The country’s wealth is largely dependent on its oil reserves in the Timor Sea, with 93% of its total revenue coming from oil and gas in 2014. But with 75% of the oil field extracted already, supply is finite and profits are reducing. Crucial to its development in securing the economic future for its 2.5 million inhabitants, the Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund was established in 2005. The fund’s USD $17 billion comprises around 90% of the state budget, emphasising the nation’s reliance on the natural resource. Notwithstanding the fund’s effectiveness in delivering the federal budget, it highlights the lack of diversity in the Timorese economy and presents concerns about the country’s capacity to compete in the trade market.

Local production is not meeting the level that a healthy economy demands. Figures from 2012 highlight the gap in production with imports amounting to USD $760 million, while imports amounted to a measly USD $31 million. This raises the question of whether Timor would actually benefit from ASEAN’s economic partnership, or whether its domestic market would be flooded with cheap goods from ASEAN members under a single market. Timor’s ability to fulfil ASEAN trade obligations is thus also in question.

Despite being a tiny nation with a GDP that cannot match that of many of the ASEAN members, Timor has put its hand up to be accepted into this regional grouping. Whilst a shining light for the development of democracy and transparency in the region, economically the country remains a dwarf. With its geographic location and strong desire to become a member, however, it looks as though Timor-Leste will join ASEAN. Whether or not membership in ASEAN will assist in the development of this young country, only time will tell.

Nathan Vadnjal holds a Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) from RMIT University.

Image credit: World Fish (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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