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East Timor: Asean's sleeping beauty

Asean is losing East Timor big time. After a few moments of intensive discussion early this year over the possible membership of the world's youngest democracy, Asean's decision-makers remain noncommittal. In a nutshell, the issue of East Timor's membership is lying dormant. At the upcoming Asean Coordinating Council Meeting on November 16 ahead of the Asean Summit in Bali, the membership issue is on the agenda but nobody knows what kind of decision will be made.

Since the official application was filed in March, there have been efforts both inside East Timor and outside to help the region's poorest country prepare for eventual Asean membership in 2012. It is an open secret that President Jose Ramos Horta has personally been pushing this scheme. He wants to realise his dream of seeing his country as the 11th member of Asean, especially during his presidency, which ends next March, when the presidential election is scheduled. In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao even highlighted East Timor's desire to join Asean to share in the spirit of cooperation. However, as time goes by, it is clear the overall grouping's enthusiasm has diminished quickly as Asean tackles more pressing problems within the organisation. Senior Asean officials met recently in Bali and did not talk about the issue. There is no guarantee that the group's decision-makers will have changed their minds by 2015, when Asean is to form a single economic community. Papua New Guinea, an Asean observer since 1986, might want to become a member at that time too.

Asean has been ambivalent regarding East Timor since Indonesia raised the issue officially shortly after taking up the bloc's 12-month revolving chair early this year. Jakarta is the most enthusiastic Asean member in regard to having Dili in the Asean fold. Somehow, Asean still cannot achieve a consensus. For certain members, the admission of East Timor is only natural; for others it is a life-and-death strategic issue. Apart from continuous human resources and language training for its officials, Dili has been opening embassies in key Asean capitals: Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila and soon in Hanoi. By contrast, the Asean presence in Dili remains minimal. Since the last one left in January, Malaysia has not put a new ambassador in place, something that has bewildered the diplomatic community. The Philippines maintains a low profile with a three-member staff, which could be downgraded in the future. The most active has been Indonesia. Jakarta has been discreet, not singling out the main reason it has been pushing for Dili's early admission: China's extensive presence in East Timor. Senior officials in Dili, particularly Ramos Horta, are by now well versed in power politics, playing one power off another. Apart from Indonesia and China, Australia and the US are the other main players.

Unfortunately, Thailand, which had been one of the most active participants in building the nation in the days after independence, is no longer part of the inner circle. The seizure of a Thai trawler inside East Timor's territorial waters last October continues to poison the once excellent bilateral relations. Former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya was in Dili early this year and failed to negotiate for the return of the trawler, which the owner claimed was not fishing illegally inside the country's territorial waters.

Gone are the days when Thai

generals such as General Songkiti Jakrabak and General Boonsarng Niumpradit were the most respected Thai personalities in the country. The embassy's premier location along the seafront speaks volumes about Thailand's early presence. The embassy was the premises of Gen Boonsrang when he commanded the United Nations Transitional Administration. Another sign of the fading Thai presence is the declining number of Thai restaurants and the absence of businessmen. A well-known Thai restaurant, the Dili Club, has changed from Thai ownership to be run by a New Zealander recently.

The only Asean country that has made its presence felt in terms of trade and investment is Singapore. China and Australia, Japan and South Korea are still trailing behind. The island republic, which has no plan to set up a permanent mission, is interested in energy-related projects, real estate and development of commercial areas. In the case of China, its investment and workers have increased

phenomenally. The newcomers open shops, gas stations, restaurants, hotels and trading spots at the people's level. Over 10,000 Chinese workers are active in constructing much-needed infrastructure on electricity and telecommunications. Local people often praise their tenacity and hard-working habits to overcome local language and cultural barriers to carry out commercial transactions in Dili, Baucau and kampongs in remote areas.

Portugal, the former colonial master, has made a comeback in a big way through language and elite links. The younger generation are trying to absorb the colonial language, which is now required for job applications. Older generations who speak Portuguese have been finding employment while younger people have

difficulty getting jobs because they lack the language proficiency required. This discrepancy could cause future dilemmas as more English speakers are needed.

Leading international aid agencies such as Japan's JICA and the UNDP are helping East Timorese officials get acquainted with English, and with global and Asean affairs, in the hope that when it becomes a member, it can integrate with Asean structures as soon as possible. Oft-cited shortcomings include English proficiency, knowledge of Asean and lack of funds.

At the recent congress of the Timor Leste Journalists Association in Dili, there was a strong consensus among the estimated 150 journalists that the media there should report and cover more on Asean, even though their nation is still not a member. "We can report more on the reality of Asean because we have a free press," said Vigilio Guterres, a senior veteran

journalist.

As a country with a very high level of media freedom, East Timor can have a positive influence over the grouping's media policies and access to information, some local journalists contended. At the moment, Asean does not have any policy of free access to the information kept at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta. Almost all intergovernment organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank have adopted freedom of information rules.

MP Fernanda Borges, president of a committee of East Timor's National Parliament, reiterated that her nation's Parliament needs to support access to information law and should not limit the citizen's right to know, noting that East Timor had signed international human rights instruments. Its universal periodic human-rights review at

the UN recently was praised by UN

agencies in its clarity and intent.

East Timor has a per capital income of around US$475 (Bt14,500) a year. Most people still live on less than 50 cents a day, far less than the average $2 among the world's poorest nations. But the country has an oil fund whose worth is estimated at over $30 billion and is a democracy. These are considered strong assets by Asean standards.

At the moment, East Timor is like Sleeping Beauty, who needs just one kiss — from Singapore that is.


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