Bright blue election boxes and indelibly inked index fingers. These are just some of the vivid colours of democracy that come to mind as I think back to something momentous that just happened in Southeast Asia.
When contemplating the future of the vibrant Southeast Asian region, the tiny island nation of East Timor is unlikely to be top-of-mind among Tokyo officials or of top diplomats who have gathered in Manila since last Wednesday for the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting
Yet this small country of some 1.2 million people is a testament to the transformative power of democracy in a once-turbulent region, and provides a powerful model for an Asia and Pacific that has encountered some worrying backsliding in recent years when it comes to democracy.
Indeed, as Asean celebrates five decades and faces new challenges, it is worth pausing to consider who’s in and who’s out of this grouping of 10 nations.
I served as an election monitor for East Timor’s recent parliamentary election as part of the International Republican Institute’s election observation mission. Throughout my visit, I was struck by the passionate commitment of the Timorese to the democratic process, and inspired by their optimism about their country’s future. I believe the country is in a strong position to continue progressing in its own development and make a positive contribution to the development of Southeast Asia. East Timor deserves Asean support for its efforts to further integrate and engage with the wider region.
After regaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, East Timor’s government declared its desire to join Asean and applied for membership in 2011. While its ultimate accession is likely, there is a chance the delays that have arisen over the past six years may persist indefinitely. Such a development, would deprive the Timorese of a much-needed chance for further development, while Asean would forgo an opportunity to bring a country further into the Asean community that can serve as a valuable example of a successful democracy to fellow member states.
Over the past 15 years, East Timor has grown into a well-functioning democracy where citizens actively engage with their government. The country was ranked as the most democratic in Southeast Asia by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index, and 43rd in the world – an impressive feat given the country’s traumatic experience during the 24-year Indonesian occupation.
One of the important ways East Timor has been able to deliver sustainable democratic reforms has been through its openness to regional and international support. To this end, organisations like IRI have worked with civil society, government bodies and political parties to help them represent Timorese citizens responsively and effectively. IRI has worked in the country since 2002, and its assistance has been an important contributor to the country’s democratic consolidation.
Likewise, when I served as the US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and travelled to East Timor in years past, I saw the importance of regional and international economic assistance to this and other developing countries first-hand. The ADB has supported infrastructure expansion, macroeconomic capacity-building and community-based development in East Timor, and is well-positioned to assist not just in improving the country’s roads, but also its water supply and sanitation systems. I grew to appreciate the complementary nature of different types of development assistance, and found that the aid provided by the ADB complements the kind of assistance provided by organisations like IRI, and vice-versa.
As Asean continues to grow in importance, it is vital that its members collectively pursue policies that advance the region’s development in a sustainable manner. At a time when democracy is backsliding in much of the region, East Timor’s accession to Asean would provide the region with a valuable example of how citizen-centred democracy can deliver a brighter, more prosperous and stable future.
Additionally, East Timor’s accession to Asean would be economically beneficial to the region. Despite its small size, Timor represents a relatively untapped market for Southeast Asian trade; likewise, Southeast Asia represents a largely untapped market for Timorese goods. In short, this would be a win-win situation for the entire region, and an important example for how inclusive economic development can sustain growth that benefits all.
During the lead-up to the election, election administrators, political parties and other stakeholders worked collaboratively to ensure a credible electoral process. This commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions bodes extremely well for East Timor’s potential as a cooperative and responsible member of Asean. My experience travelling through this small yet vibrant nation has driven home the benefits for all of proceeding with East Timor’s accession.
Now is a time for coming together. We owe no less to the many people who across Asia’s newest nation proudly held up an indelibly-inked finger as a mark and proof of democracy in action.
Curtis S Chin is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC, and served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.