Kornelius Purba, Jakarta – With the victory of his CNRT Party in the May 20 elections, and his ability to form a strong coalition with a smaller party, Timor-Leste's independence hero Xanana Gusmao is moving closer to realizing his ambition to integrate the young nation into the globally influential ASEAN, with the strong backing of its former colonizer Indonesia.
Initially other ASEAN members, notably Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, were reluctant to accept a new member, as it was feared it would slow ASEAN's quest to establish a regional economic community. ASEAN, for example, found in a study in 2016 that Timor-Leste lacked human resources to catch up with the economic growth of ASEAN member states.
But Indonesia succeeded in convincing them that Timor-Leste's inclusion is in the interests of the bloc amid the growing rivalry between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. For the same reason, Australia, the main supporter of Timor-Leste's independence has signed a security and defense agreement with Timor-Leste.
It is very true that Timor-Leste remains poor now, but it has abundant oil and gas reserves that will earn it billions of dollars if it can resolve its dispute with Australia and start exploiting these natural resources.
The CNRT won 41.6 percent of the vote in the election last month for 31 parliamentary seats, forcing Xanana to build a coalition in the 65-member parliament. The choice went to the tiny Democratic Party, which won six seats.
Fretilin, the party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Vasconcelos, better known as Taur Matan Ruak, won 25.7 percent of the vote.
Xanana led his nation in the guerrilla war against Indonesia from 1976 until 1992, when the Indonesian military captured him and imprisoned him in Jakarta. The Central Jakarta Court sentenced him to 20 years for treason. He was released just a few weeks before the United Nations-organized referendum was held in then-East Timor on Aug. 30, 1999. The majority of the people voted for independence from Indonesia. On May 20, 2022, East Timor became a fully independent nation and was renamed Timor-Leste.
Xanana was elected the first president of Timor-Leste in 2002 and served until 2007. From 2007 until 2015 he became prime minister.
He is slated to be sworn in as prime minister late next month. He will work closely with his close ally, President Ramos Horta. The two national heroes will leave a memorable legacy if Timor-Leste joins ASEAN as the 11th member state.
Thanks to the strong endorsement of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, Timor-Leste looks set to secure ASEAN's full membership. ASEAN only began to seriously considering Dili's integration bid 11 years after it formally applied for ASEAN membership in 2011.
Timor-Leste is luckier than Papua New Guinea (PNG) in this case. The entreaty of PNG, which shares huge Papua Island with Indonesia, has not received a response from ASEAN since its submission in 1976. Practically, the two sides have lost their appetite to continue the negotiations, while PNG has opted to concentrate more on the progress of the Pacific Islands Forum.
President Ramos Horta attended the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last November at the invitation of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. On May 20, 2022, ASEAN accepted Timor-Leste as an observer, with the right to attend ASEAN meetings.
ASEAN has started to formulate a dedicated road map that outlines various steps that Timor-Leste has to go through in order to gain full membership. The steps include the obligation to fulfill agreements or treaties under the political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars of ASEAN.
During the ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, earlier this month the road map was finalized and agreed by the group's leaders. Timor-Leste's PM Taun Matan Ruak was present in the summit.
"The full membership will be very dependent on the speedy realization of the road map by Timor-Leste. Indonesia and other ASEAN members are committed to helping Timor-Leste," Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said when asked whether ASEAN would accept Timor-Leste as its new member during Indonesia's rotary chairmanship, which will end in December.
Singaporean PM Lee promised to help the acceleration of Timor-Leste's membership, but warned that it might take a while to accede to agreements that ASEAN has signed.
"There are something like 66 ASEAN agreements, and it will take a while for Timor-Leste to accede to all of them. And I think it's important that Timor-Leste completes all this process so that by the time it joins ASEAN, it's really truly an ASEAN member and not just a half-member or member-in-waiting," Lee was quoted by The Straits Times as saying after the Labuan Bajo Summit.
ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn concurred, saying Timor-Leste would become a full member as soon as it has completed its homework, including its adoption of ASEAN's three main pillars on security, economy and socio-cultural aspects.
The road to integration with ASEAN may look short, but it can be so bumpy that no one, including Xanana, can reach the finish line. He may capitalize on his good terms with Indonesian and other ASEAN leaders to accomplish the mission, but that will not be enough.
For sure full membership of ASEAN, a fast-growing market of 600 million people, will be beneficial for Timor-Leste, but also for the existing 10 members of the regional grouping.
Now the ball is in Timor-Leste's court. The enthusiasm of ASEAN member states to assist the country should be answered with its determination to fulfill all the requirements to join the bloc. Timor-Leste has to prove it deserves the ASEAN membership.
[The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.]