Has East Timor become a viable state and economy within the Asia Pacific region? What benefits will Timor Leste gain from prospective membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)?
After twelve years of liberation from Indonesian control, the international community still questions whether or not East Timor (Timor Leste) has established a stable society. Corrupt government, a heavy dependence on imported goods and foreign aid weaken the foundation upon which Timor Leste is built. As the most immediate regional organisation, it would seem logical to hope that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) would help remedy Timor Leste’s position. The reality, however, is that fractured politics and an unstable economic foundation undermine East Timor’s ambition to be an independent state in the Asia Pacific region. Membership with ASEAN will do little to forward this goal.
The object of this discussion is to relay how and why East Timor is not yet a stable state or economy in the Asia Pacific region and why it won’t greatly benefit from membership with ASEAN. It has been divided into four parts. We begin by analysing the question that inspires this argument: has East Timor become a viable state and economy in the Asia Pacific region, and will it benefit from potential membership with ASEAN? This will lead to a better understanding of the smaller components within the question that must be addressed. The essay will then recall how the question leads to the above stated thesis. The second part of the discussion will cover the political instability that permeates Timorese government, and the fourth section will review East Timor’s weak economic foundation. In following, the essay will support the critical discussion of why East Timor does not stand to greatly benefit from membership in ASEAN. The discussion will end with a brief conclusion that will recall the entirety of the argument and emphasize why these individual components lead to the understanding that East Timor is not yet a viable state or economy in the Asia-Pacific Region.
Breaking Down the Question
In order to create a full answer to this question we must first have a full understanding of the question asked: has East Timor become a viable state and economy within the Asia Pacific region? What benefits will Timor Leste gain from prospective membership in the ASEAN? This question has two distinct parts that require consideration.
Firstly, we must understand what the question means by saying “a viable” state and economy. What does viable mean in this context? Whilst the interpretation of this word can be taken from many angles, this essay regards the word viable as a synonym for sustainable. In order to be an independent state like the countries that surround it, East Timor must have a political system and an economy that can survive without help from outside actors. It needs to be independent from other groups and also needs to be able to generate its own wealth to continually provide its citizens with the political goods they demand. A sustainable economy will therefore require that a state is able to produce its own wealth and a sustainable state means that East Timor needs a political system that can allocate that wealth effectively. In this sense the first part of the question becomes: “has East Timor become a sustainable state and economy within the Asia Pacific region?” In the following pieces of this essay we will explore why East Timor does not currently have either of these qualities.
Secondly, it is important to consider what the question means by asking what the benefits exist for East Timor if it becomes a member of ASEAN. This part of the question momentarily differs attention away from East Timor and questions the integrity of ASEAN as an organisation. What does ASEAN offer to its members? What can ASEAN offer East Timor as a poor and weak state? Here it is important to assess whether ASEAN can support an economy like East Timor and wether ASEAN can give East Timor the guidance and help it needs. Furthermore, does ASEAN have an interest in gaining East Timor as a member? The entailments of this essay expand upon why East Timor does not have much to gain by becoming a member of ASEAN.
By breaking down the question in this way we have established better clarity of the foundation of the topic. The following section will begin explore the question by addressing East Timor’s current political context.
Discussion of State and Politics
East Timor’s political instability has its weak foundation in the themes that have been created since the Portuguese occupancy. Suppression, corruption and nationalism all play a part in the complicated web that creates the Timor Leste state. In simple terms, however, there are four main reasons why East Timor is not a viable state in the Asia Pacific region.
First, and perhaps most prominently, the role of the nationalist group Fretilin undercuts Timorese politics. As the primary group to over throw the Indonesian government, it became the leading political party when the Indonesian government was overthrown. Since, Fretlin has undermined the democratic system that East Timor has tried to create with help from the United Nations (Simonsen, 2006). During its reign, the Fretitlin government routinely acted like an authoritarian regime by using its majority to override the political opposition. The previous prime minister and Fretilin Secretary General, Mari Alkatiri, used his position to veto changes to the constitution and to pass laws that supported his position (Simonsen, 2006). These authoritarianisms were accompanied by Alkatiri’s influence with the media in which he sought to suppress material that threatened the strength of his position (Simonsen, 2006).
Furthermore, Fretilin still holds nearly a 60 percent majority in Timorese politics. While Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta are currently leading a more ethical government, the prevalence of the Fretlin party still stunts the democratic process. Even with the majority support of the Timorese, autocratic action on behalf of Fretilin does not represent the Timorese that are not a part of the party, therefore damaging the country’s democratic ambitions (Shoesmith, 2003).
The authoritarian role that Fretilin has played in East Timor is one of the driving faults in its political system. As Sven Simonson recognises in his essay on Timorese politics; “with its current power base and the fragility of new institutions, the ruling party has the ability to cast institutions in such a way as to make real political competition increasingly difficult,” (Simonsen, 2006). This inability to compete with Fretilin fortifies its authoritarian position and suffocates political diversity.
The second obstacle to Timorese political stability lies in the division between East Timor’s national army and the national police. The national army, currently known as F-FDTL (Falintil-Forces de Defesa de Timor Leste), were once known as the Flanatil. This was military branch of the Fretlin revolutionary movement before independence from Indonesia. When Timor Leste won independence in 1999, Flanitil became the acting security force on the island. In 2001 the UN intervention program, however, decided that Flanitil held too much power and dismembered the group to establish a new national army. This became the F-FDTL. While there were strong ties to the Fretilin party, many of the veterans from the former Flanitil did not have a place in the F-FDTL. The aim of this move on behalf of the UN was to stem the nationalist sentiment and reduce Fretilin’s power (Simonsen, 2006).
To further dilute Fretlin’s power in the country, the UN mission chose to create a national police force. The UN, however, did not have the time or resources to do this effectively. Instead of training Timorese for this force, the UN hired 340 Indonesian police who had worked in East Timor prior to the liberation. This group was the foundation for the Policia Nacional de Timor Leste (PNTL). From the start, the PNTL had little support because of their connection to Indonesia and the connotation they had to the liberation movement. They lost further support because of their brutal methods as police (Simonsen, 2006).
Thus the security of the nation rests in the collaborative effort of the PNTL and the F-FDTL. These two groups, however, do not cooperate. The F-FDTL, while it has been reorganised, is still a strong symbol of the liberation, nationalist movement because of the historic connection with Fretilin. In founding the PNTL with former Indonesian police, the Timorese see the PNTL as a representation of Indonesian occupancy (Simonsen, 2006). Because both of these groups are affiliated to two very different ideological parties, they clash on many different levels, often violently. Being incapable of cooperation, these two groups have been undermined the security of the nation.
Thirdly, a small degree of ethnic difference divides the country. Within East Timor, the Timorese divided themselves between east and west. The eastern Timorese, known as Caladi, call themselves the true patriots of Timor Leste. They accuse the western Timorese, called Firaco, of being less nationalistic during the revolution. Furthermore, they reason that because the western part of East Timor is defined by the Indonesian border, the Firaco have Indonesian blood. While both areas may have Fretilin supporters, the ethnic dichotomy creates tension (Simonsen, 2006). Here again, it is possible to see how the country is divided by nationalism. The ethnic divide fractures Timorese society, and in doing so, weakens the political stability of the country.
The fourth reason for political weakness in East Timor is the lack of clarity between functional languages (Cotton, 2005). Prior to Portuguese rule the Timorese spoke a dialect currently known as Tetum. This language was never written and had many forms but is, none the less, the oldest language in East Timor. During Portuguese occupancy the Timorese were governed solely in Portuguese. Up until 1975 the national language was Portuguese and all education (what little there was) and exchange was made in Portuguese. Finally, during the Indonesian government from 1975-1999, Indonesian was the most prominent language. Therefore there are three languages that are spoken in East Timor.
The difficulty in choosing one national langue is largely a conflict between practicality and nationalism. Tetum is by far the oldest language and the one the Timorese identify most closely with. Like the F-FDTL and Fretlin, it is a symbol of East Timor that the Timorese value. Tetum is not a written language, however, and it is therefore difficult to use in legal or political matters that need documentation. The older generations are most familiar with Portuguese and support its use as a national language. The Timorese that grew up during the Indonesian occupancy, however, are most familiar with Indonesian. This generation makes up the current work force and this gives support for the use of Indonesian. As with most connections to Indonesia though, the Timorese also see language as being yet another connection to Indonesia. The idea that it might be used as a national language, no matter how practical, symbolises that Timor Leste is still experiencing Indonesian influence (Cotton, 2005).
These three languages divide the nation, and the debate between which should be the national language fortifies this schism. Without unity on the matter, the country is further divided politically, undermining Timorese politics on yet another level.
The role of Fretilin, the tension between the F-FDTL and the PNTL, the ethnic divide and the ambiguity between languages weakens East Timor as a state. In combination with the weak economic foundation, East Timor is still needs a great deal of development before it becomes a viable state and economy.
East Timor’s weak economic foundation
East Timor has a weak economic foundation is because of the lack of product diversification. The country relies almost entirely on revenue generated from contentious oil reserves, imports to supply the market, and foreign aid. Being dependent on these three relatively instable incomes makes a fragile economic base.
East Timor has two exports of significance. The first is coffee, but on top of being an unreliable source of income, this makes only about 5-8% of the annual GDP. Furthermore, much of the crop is smuggled over the border into Indonesia for export. The only other stable source of income for East Timor is the money generated from the oil reserves in the Timor Sea. revenue supplies the country with nearly 90% of the annual government funding (Cotton, 2005). But there are issues in being so reliant on this one source of profit. Firstly, it makes East Timor almost entirely reliant on the market price of one resource. If anything were to happen to the price of oil to decrease its demand, East Timor would lose virtually its entire source of revenue.
Secondly, the oil reserves that East Timor use for income are in contentious territory. Being in the Timor Sea, these reserves fall almost equidistant from both East Timor and Australia, giving both countries a claim to the supply. The current agreement allows East Timor to take 90% of the revenue drawn from the Joint Petroleum Development Industry (JPDA) but revision of the agreement could put this money in jeopardy (Cotton, 2005). Furthermore, these reserves are closer to Indonesia than either of these countries. The Indonesian government, however, has not yet laid claim to them (Cotton, 2005). Being that this territory is so susceptible to dispute, East Timor relies on oil that could easily be taken by another sovereign state, threatening their already weak economic foundation.
In following, the capital that East Timor generates is largely spent on imports. Industry within East Timor cannot compete with the import price from large transnational co-operations and, as a result, everything from technology to fresh water is imported (Neves, 2011). The low profit from private business dissuades the Timorese from nurturing the private business sector of the economy. This characteristic is particularly prevalent in the agricultural industry where Timorese farmers struggle to compete with international food prices and cannot survive.
Without a healthy private business section of the economy, East Timor’s entire economic foundation is weakened. In order to develop as a nation, this section of the population needs to be able to generate and spend capital. The import economy thus makes it impossible for the private sector of business to survive (Neves, 2011).
Lastly, East Timor’s economy has been supported by international aid since the independence movement. It has received nearly five billion dollars in foreign aid to ensure that East Timor’s development programs were successful (Neves, 2011). This aid, however, has been ineffectual in the long term and is beginning to dwindle as foreign investors see that East Timor is not making progress. It has been spent on imports rather than infrastructure, which would have been a sustainable way of ensuring future prosperity. The US alone invested 242 million dollars between 2000 and 2008 and saw East Timor as being an ally in the Asia Pacific region. With its attention now focused on the Middle East and China, the US doesn’t have interest if keeping East Timor afloat by sending aid (Neves, 2011). East Timor’s current President, Jose Ramos-Horta, has acknowledged the mistake that East Timor has made in not spending this money more effectively: “if this (aid) is spent more wisely, Timor-Leste would have been free from poverty,” (Neves, 2011).
This aid has been subsidising East Timor’s economy, allowing it to survive, but crippling it in the long-term. During this time, the country has established a dependency on aid, rendering the economy highly vulnerable when the funding ends (Neves, 2011). Being so dependent on such an instable source of income has weakened the foundation of East Timor’s economy.
East Timor’s reliance on oil, imports and aid rendering the economy as completely dependent on external influence. Without sustainable measure of economic prosperity, East Timor is not a sustainable or viable economy in the Asia Pacific region
What does East Timor have to gain from potential membership with ASEAN?
The final component of this essay needs to address whether or not East Timor will gain from membership with ASEAN. As discussed in the beginning of this argument, answering this requires an analysis of the integrity of ASEAN as a regional organisation. It also demands that the discussion address whether ASEAN can help East Timor given the current political and economic situation.
The foremost consideration in discussing ASEAN as an organisation is how the members of ASEAN co-operate. As a regional organisation that was established for economic unification, do the members actually take much action towards economic development? Jurgen Haacke’s analysis of ASEAN’s diplomatic security answers this query:
“ASEAN members were castigated for their reluctance or unwillingness to take adequate steps to address challenges that emanated form the territory of individual member-states, but threatened the environmental and economic security of neighbours as well the political stability of the entire sub-region of Southeast Asia,” (Haacke, 2003).
This assertion supports the idea that while economic unification through ASEAN is theoretically beneficial, the actual effect and co-operation between ASEAN members is marginal. As the members of ASEAN are “relatively feeble” economies on a global scale, their capacity to lend aid to other states is heavily sanctioned (Haacke, 2003). Because many of the participating states are still challenged by development themselves, they are not currently able to focus on helping struggling states like East Timor. In this respect East Timor stands to gain very little from ASEAN membership.
Secondly, it is easy to assume that states can benefit from membership with any regional organisation merely by participating. This may be true to some extent, but it is important to recognise that ASEAN is not an organisation like the European Union. The EU has exercised greater economic understanding that has allowed each of the member nations to prosper through cooperation. Unifying the participating states by using the Euro, the EU has woven each of the members states’ economies together, forming one of the strongest economic foundations in the world. Membership with ASEAN does not come with the benefit of a common currency like the Euro, nor is ASEAN as interdependent as the European Union.
As the example of the EU demonstrates, the strength of a regional organisation lies in how deeply connected the participating economies are. ASEAN doesn’t offer economic unification like the EU and therefore East Timor has little more to gain from membership other than to use the other participants as template economies and trade partners. This depends, however, on East Timor’s ability to diversify its economic base.
As a third point, the “ASEAN Way” undermines the ambition for regional cooperation. As one of the founding points upon which ASEAN was built, ASEAN’s non-interference principle undercuts regional cooperation (Haacke, 2003). ASEAN was constructed by the idea that economic regional cooperation would benefit Southeast Asia and that economics would be the only area where the organisation interfered with sovereign matters. Beyond economics, the group chose to employ the non-interference principle as a part of the ASEAN Way so that all other matters were handled by the state (Haacke, 2003).
This principle has caused ASEAN’s unification to struggle. While ASEAN wants to create a strong co-operation, it cannot do so without being a shareholder in the other matters of state of its members. The Hanoi Summit of 1998 attempted to rectify this issue by creating the Troika and revising the ASEAN Way. As an impermanent group, however, the effectiveness of the Troika is debatable and its goals have yet to be accomplished (Haacke, 2003).
The ASEAN Way is therefore another reason why East Timor would not greatly benefit form ASEAN membership. Its principle of non-interference, even after revision, dilutes the potential for cooperation. ASEAN’s non-involvement during the East Timor crises in 1999 is a tribute to how ASEAN attempts to maintain its non-involvement policy (Haacke, 2003).
For these reasons, East Timor stands to gain very little from membership with ASEAN. As a regional cooperation organisation ASEAN does not have the capacity to help East Timor, it is not as well established as a regional organisation like the European Union, nor does it offer much aid because of its non-interference policy. As the prospective 11th member, East Timor would stand to gain very little.
This discussion has been an analysis of East Timor’s current political and economic situation. After recognising Timor Leste’s history as a colony and a part of Indonesia, the argument has considered the political difficulties that undermine East Timor as a state. In following, the discussion reviewed the Timorese economy and recognised how fragile it is through its dependence on oil, imports and aid. Lastly, we have finished answering the question by critiquing ASEAN as an organisation and seen that East Timor will not greatly gain from membership because of the gaps in the organisational policy. With the information provided it is clear that fractured politics and an unstable economic foundation undermine East Timor’s ambition to be a viable independent state in the Asia Pacific region. Membership with ASEAN will do little to forward this goal.
ASEAN. (n.d.). About ASEAN. Retrieved 2011 йил 19-June from Association of Southeast Asian Nations: www.aseansec.org
Chong, A. (2007). Southeast Asia: theory between modernization and tradition. International Relations of the Asia Pacific , 7, 391-425.
Cotton, J. (2005). East Timor in 2004: Its All About Oil. Asian Survey , 45 (1), 186-190.
Dobell, G. (2009 йил 13-October). Australia, Indonesia and East Timor. Retrieved 2011 йил 9-June from The Interpreter: www.loweyinterpreter.com
East Timorese Government, T. (2010 йил February). The La’o Hamutuk Bulletin. Retrieved 2011 3-June from The La’o Hamutuk: www.laohamutuk.org
Elliott, P. D. (1978). The East Timor Dispute. The INternational and Comparitive Law Quarterly , 27 (1), 238-249.
Haacke, J. (2003). ASEAN’s diplomatic and security culture: a constructivist assessment. International Relations of the Aisa-Pacific , 3, 57-87.
International Crises Group, T. (2006). Managing Tensions on the Timor-Leste/Indonesia Border. International Crises Group. Jakarta/Brussels: International Crises Group.
Kingsbury, D. (2007). Indonesia in 2006. Asian Survey , 47 (1), 155-161.
Knowlton, B. (2011 йил 21-April). World Bank Faults Itself for Slow Progress in East Timor. The New York Times .
Kohen, A. (2006 йил 15-August). A Second Birth for East Timor? Retrieved 2011 йил 23-June from Foreign Policy in Focus: www.fpif.org
Murdoch, L. (2009 йил 11-May). Fretilin blamed for East Timor corruption. Retrieved 2011 29-June from The Age: www.theage.com.au
Neves, G. (2011 йил 20-June). Timor: Where Has All the Aid Gone? Retrieved 2011 йил 23-June from Foreign Policy in Focus: www.fpif.org
Nevins, J. (2007). Timor-Leste in 2006. Asian Survey , 47 (1), 162-167.
Roughneen, S. (2009 йил 9-July). Seven Questions: Jose Ramos-Horta. Retrieved 2011 12-June from Foreign Policy: www.foreignpolicy.com
Sherlock, S. (1996). Political Economy of the East Timor Conflict. Asian Survey , 36 (9), 835-851.
Shoesmith, D. (2003). Timor Leste: Divided Leadership in a Semi-Presidential System. Asian Survey , 43 (2), 231-252.
Simonsen, S. G. (2006). The Authoritarian Temptation in East Timor: Nationbuilding and the Need for Inculsive Governance. Asian Survey , 46 (4), 575-596.
Whittington, S. (2003). Gender and Peacekeeping: The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. Signs , 28 (4), 1283-1288.
 For a brief history of East Timor please see Appendix 1
 ASEAN created the Troika in response to the clear need for greater involvement in state politics of its members. The effect of the Troika, however, is considered marginal because it is an “ ‘ad hoc’ body” as determined by the members of ASEAN. This implies that the Troika is disbanded after it has addressed a political or security threat in the Southeast Asian region. The condition for involvement is that this event must be a threat to regional “peace and harmony,” Haacke, J. (2003). ASEAN’s diplomatic and security culture: a constructivist assessment. International Relations of the Aisa-Pacific , 3, 57-87.
 During the East Timor crises in 1999, ASEAN did nothing to intervene in the humanitarian atrocities occurring, despite the fact that they were a threat to regional peace and security. For this reason among others, it is debatable whether the Troika, which was meant to address issues exactly like East Timor’s, was useful or effective. Further more, in support of the idea that the East Timor crises was a matter of regional significance, ASEAN members like Thailand and Singapore, sent aid through the UN mission in East Timor rather than creating a mission for ASEAN. To this extent, ASEAN has yet to prove how it can offer developing nations security if it does not effectively handle situations like East Timor’s effectively Haacke, J. (2003). ASEAN’s diplomatic and security culture: a constructivist assessment. International Relations of the Aisa-Pacific , 3, 57-87.