It is time for Asean to support East Timor's democratic efforts by inducting the young state as its eleventh member
It has not been easy for East Timor, one of the world's youngest nations, to maintain the rule of law, nurture democracy, and avoid the slippery slope toward the unenviable status of a failed state. East Timor is a poor country with only 900,000 people, but it has managed to survive despite many unresolved problems related to poverty and its traumatic recent history. The country's presidential election on April 9 went ahead peacefully and served as a showcase for the democratic aspirations of the East Timorese, who in 1999 voted for independence after 24 years under Indonesian rule.
Last year, the country descended into chaos due to a mutiny in its armed forces. Thousands of refugees fled their homes to escape a flare-up of violence in which dozens were killed. To ensure stability, Australian troops have been stationed there in a peace-keeping capacity.
Following the country's first electoral round on April 9, there will be a run-off contest between the two frontrunners former prime minister and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and Francisco Guterres, the former commander of the Fretilin Party as none of the eight candidates in the election won enough votes to declare victory. The winner will succeed charismatic president Xanana Gusmao, who did not seek re-election and looks set to run as a candidate for prime minister shortly.
Although it is hard to predict the outcome of the run-off poll, it is hoped that the next president will be able to restore calm and establish a sense of normalcy. The contest between Ramos-Horta, who has been the country's voice overseas for decades, and Guterres, who has many followers, will be a close one. Guterres got 28.7 per cent of the votes while Ramos-Horta secured 22.6 per cent in the first round.
East Timor has great potential because of its rich natural resources, especially its oil and gas deposits, which could serve as a vast source of revenue for its national development.
The country needs dedicated technocrats who can run and manage the economy so that everybody in society benefits from the oil and gas money. Since its independence in 1999, and after three years of UN administration, East Timor has been struggling to survive local disputes and discord among various ethnic groups within its borders.
The country still needs a functioning bureaucracy to run the country effectively and to take care of its natural resources and properly utilise the large oil revenues it will receive in the future. Media outlets in East Timor also have a role to play in disseminating information, encouraging reconciliation and promoting stability in a divided community where members speak many different languages.
Finally, Asean must do all it can to embrace East Timor now. Although Dili was invited to join the group as an observer several years back and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the country is still far from becoming a member.
Indeed, it is time that Asean inducted East Timor as its eleventh member. here is no need to wait any longer to include the country. After all, Asean did not wait for the military junta in Burma to give way to democracy before admitting that country into the grouping in 1997. East Timor is a democratic country and Asean should provide it with assistance and organisational support. Ongoing Asean programmes with its dialogue partners would help East Timor overcome its current problems.
It is true that East Timor has better and closer ties with the South Pacific Forum, which it has been a part of since declaring independence. However, as a member of Asean, East Timor would feel more at home as its younger generation and bureaucrats are more familiar with Southeast Asian culture than any other. Furthermore, East Timor could also serve as a bridge between Southeast Asia and Pacific nations.
Asean would not mind such an arrangement. Indeed such an arrangement would benefit Asean members, which could utilise East Timor's extensive network of contacts in the Pacific and Europe.
This article was first printed in the Asian News Network.
Reprinted by Permission.
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