How East Timor’s Democracy Is Making it an Outcast

In Southeast Asia, being democratic can lose you friends.


Five years since submitting its formal membership application to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the small Pacific country of East Timor is more determined than ever to join.

It should be simple. According to ASEAN’s 1967 Bangkok Declaration, the main condition for joining the economic and political alliance is that the applicant country must be geographically located in Southeast Asia. But the 2007 ASEAN Charter introduced new requirements — above all, the need to obtain consensus among the bloc’s current member states. This is where East Timor is now running into problems.

Although East Timor’s neighbor (and former enemy) Indonesia and some other ASEAN members are supporting its membership, skepticism is mounting in Singapore and Laos, whose governments say they are concerned that East Timor’s low economic development will prevent it from fulfilling its membership obligations. But this excuse strains credulity. When Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam joined ASEAN in the 1990s, their meager economic development also attracted criticism, but wasn’t used as a reason to delay their admission. In addition, East Timor’s ranking on the Human Development Index, a broader measure of development than economic growth, is higher than that of Cambodia, Laos, and Burma. In terms of income per capita, East Timor bests four current ASEAN members: Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam.

If East Timor’s economic performance is not really why its membership is being delayed, Singapore and Laos must have other reasons. And indeed they do: these countries don’t want to include East Timor because the tiny nation is an outspoken advocate of democracy and human rights.

Fourteen years after gaining independence, East Timor is a multi-party democracy.Fourteen years after gaining independence, East Timor is a multi-party democracy. It has held two presidential and legislative elections and an independence referendum, all regarded free and fair by international observation missions. In 2002, East Timor established an Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice which has been highly esteemed by a U.N.-linked organization that accredits the world’s national human rights institutions. The country has developed an active civil society that promotes human rights both at home and abroad. Furthermore, East Timor is a conscientious member of numerous regional human rights bodies, such as the National Human Rights Institutions Forum and the Asia Pacific Forum.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Democracy Index ranks East Timor higher than all ASEAN members except Brunei (which is not ranked). Of the ASEAN members, three (Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma) are classified as “hybrid” regimes with both democratic and authoritarian features, whereas two (Vietnam and Laos) are rated as outright authoritarian.

Like most nations, East Timor’s democratic system is not perfect: It holds a “partly free” ranking in Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report. Yet its political achievements in just fourteen years of independence are striking. These alone deserve consideration, if not praise, from ASEAN and its member states.

Indeed, East Timor’s democratic performance should be an advantage for its candidacy. The ASEAN Charter and other key documents tout the bloc’s dedication to democracy and human rights. ASEAN even established its own human rights body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, in 2009. In practice, however, East Timor’s democracy hinders its eligibility for ASEAN membership, its credentials making it an outsider.

ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization, and as such it is based on consensus and respect for its members’ sovereignty. That’s why its beautiful words about democracy and human rights remain stymied by the Asian principle of non-interference. It is no accident that scholars and human rights experts regard its new human rights body as a “toothless” institution, since any of its pronouncements can be vetoed by any single ASEAN country. This was precisely the intention: to create a showpiece for human rights that would be incapable of meaningfully interfering in any member states’ domestic affairs.

Thus far, East Timor’s politicians don’t quite seem to realize this, often showcasing their country’s democratic credentials as an asset. They fail to grasp that many ASEAN member states’ outward acceptance of democracy and human rights is purely for show. On several occasions, José Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s former president, has been openly critical of human rights abuses in Burma.José Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s former president, has been openly critical of human rights abuses in Burma. In 2015, together with other Nobel Laureates, he described what was happening to the Rohingya minority there as “nothing less than genocide.” During the 2014 Bali Democracy Forum, another former president, Xanana Gusmão, said that ASEAN countries “must search for new ways of sustainable development… without losing sight of universal values, because… these values can ensure human dignity.”

Meanwhile, the horrific treatment of Burma’s Rohingya minority, the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in West Papua in Indonesia, the 2012 disappearance of Laotian activist Sombath Somphone, and the 2014 military coup in Thailand have produced a minimal response from ASEAN. Against this backdrop, it becomes clear why East Timor’s democratic credentials are problematic. Any serious promotion of democracy and human rights within ASEAN could undermine the comfortable status quo of its less democratic members.

But in no case should East Timor jeopardize its international reputation by haggling over democracy and human rights. Instead, it should continue to champion these values while pursuing ASEAN membership in a more pragmatic way: completing all the membership requirements, taking on the responsibility of attending the many ASEAN meetings, and continuing its economic development. If these targets are met, it will be all the more difficult for ASEAN member states to keep delaying East Timor’s membership, no matter how democratic it may be.

ASEAN, too, should reconsider its stance. What those opposing East Timor’s membership are failing to understand is that admitting it would be in their interest, particularly from the point of view of security. East Timor’s snubbing by ASEAN, along with its strained relationship with Australia, is increasingly turning the country towards China, which has its own interests in the region (including its dispute with ASEAN members in the South China Sea). Leaving East Timor alone increases its vulnerability to this Chinese influence and provides evidence that ASEAN is not prepared to effectively meet the region’s challenges.

East Timor’s political credentials are an asset to ASEAN member states if they really intend to commit to the organization’s stated principles. Its global reputation and its peaceful reconciliation with Indonesia (after 24 years of conflict) are further indications that the country will be an honest and valuable partner. East Timor is a prospective member ASEAN cannot afford to lose.