Timor-Leste, or East Timor has been striving to get into the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for over 10 years, what though is stopping its membership?
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A background to East Timor
When the west was swallowing up south and east Asia the Netherlands took over the bulk of what would later be known as Indonesia, an exception to this was Timor-Leste, or East Timor, the eastern half of the island of Timor.
Portuguese rule was relatively benign in comparison to their governorship of Angola and Mozambique for example, but this did not stop a yearning for independence. The fight was largely led by FRETILIN, an officially Marxist organization who received support from the Soviet Union among others.
As Portugal slowly started to relinquish its colonies, most including Angola and Mozambique drifted into the Soviet sphere of influence, This resulted in not just brutal civil wars in both countries, but the stark reality that this was a likely scenario for East Timor and the popular rebels.
Cold War games though were to dictate a very unpleasant end result to Timorese hopes of freedom.
The cold war proxy of Indonesia
Indonesia, in its current landmass has never been one coherent country, with the independence movements of the people of Banda Aceh, East Timor, and West Papua among others been clear proof of this.
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Originally this new state was governed by President Sukarno, a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), as well as being somewhat left-leaning. The Cold War politics of the time meant that the west were filled with abject fear and by 1967 President Suharto had taken over in a US backed coup, his “New Order” and a one party state firmly in the western camp was set up. For all intents this gave him free reign to do in the region as he wished.
The takeover of East Timor
In November 1975 East Timor, like Angola and Mozambique declared independence, Fearing it would be a “new Cuba” Indonesia with overt support from the West invaded 9 days later.
A fake election took place, which included just a handful of elders and East Timor was duly declared Indonesia’s 27th province in 1976. Much as had previoulsy happened in West Papua.
This though was not the end of it for the Timorese who continued fighting physically and morally until 1998. During this period, described as the East Timor genocide it is believed there were over 100,000 local deaths. For context Timor-Leste today has a population of 1.3 million. Indonesian rule was not only brutal, but done as the world watched.
As well as deaths from battle there were also numerous massacres, such as the 1991 Dili massacre. This saw over 250 pro-independence activists murdered in a cemetery. Finally the world started to take notice.
With Cold War 1 over and the eventual fall of Sukarno in 1998 it was finally agreed to grant East Timor, although not West Papua, or Banda Aceh an independence referendum.
The vote held in August 1999 was a simple one, stay, or go, with 78.5 percent of voters going for independence. This did not make the Indonesians happy and many pro-integration militias, supported by Indonesia carried out massacres on their way out of the country, a final bleak insult epitomising their brutal rule of the region.
Contemporary East Timor
Elections were held, but early life in East Timor was not easy and there was briefly a civil war in 2005/2006 which forced 15 percent of the population to flee their homes. The United Nations sent in peacekeepers and by and large things have been stable since, with the country joining the UN, as well as aspiring to join ASEAN
Why isn’t Timor-Leste in ASEAN
There are numerous reasons for this, with new President José Ramos-Horta stating that while they were originally not ready when they first applied after independence things were now much better and the country was in the “right place” to join. A point particularly emphasized in comparison to current member Myanmar.
Cambodia the current chair have promised to help the country get in, but in reality there is one huge stumbling block, and that is Singapore.
Why do Singapore not want Timor-Leste in ASEAN?
Despite the rather weak economic integration of ASEAN, countries are still protective over who joins, with the general consensus being that Singapore are the main block to Timor-Leste joining. And the reason? They do not want “another Cambodia, or Laos” in the bloc.
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And by that statement, they mean nations that are either “too aligned”, or receive too much money from China.
Timor-Leste and China
Timor-Leste is far from a Chinese puppet state, but they are extremely open about the fact that they do business with China. The Chinese have build their whole road system, governmental buildings, as well as investing in numerous infrastructure projects.
And while Singapore and others look down on this, one politician who asked not to be named explained things like this “Australia come in and say you need more democracy. So we have 12 Presidential candidates in a country of 1.3 million. They then leave without actually doing anything.
China come in and actually build stuff for us, while asking very little in return. It is all very well questioning their motives, but if they don’t come in and invest, who will, Australia”?
And as for Singapore? The irony is that Timor-Leste spend millions sending patients there as part of their universal healthcare system, a point that makes the Timorese feel particularly offended by Singaporean snub.
So, to sum up on why Timor-Leste is not in ASEAN? Fear of China, small nations being used for proxy battles and the further polarisation of the planet.