This week the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) published a study on the experience of diplomats from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) within ASEAN. The study looks at how these countries integrated (or re-integrated) with the world after trauma and isolation, through the process of joining ASEAN, as well as their interactions with and within the ASEAN institutions. It posits that, by using the smaller forum of ASEAN, the CLMV countries learned or re-learned how to operate in the world system.
I would agree with this proposition, as one of ASEAN’s major successes has been to bring the heretofore isolated CLMV countries into the world system, even if that process has required more time and resources in some countries rather than others.
However, the study focused on the experience of the CLMV countries in ASEAN, but not on the converse, e.g., how did the incumbent ASEAN+6 countries view this process? Not all of the ASEAN+6 countries took a positive view of the CLMV countries’ accession process, as some countries (e.g. Singapore) have cited human resources and capacity concerns as obstacles to ASEAN’s taking on new members (e.g., Timor-Leste), clearly reflecting the lingering effects of the CLMV experience.
To this, I would say that the CLMV experience is illustrative but not indicative of what will happen when Timor-Leste joins ASEAN.
Unlike the CLMV countries, Timor-Leste has existed as an independent country for a far shorter period of time. That means many institutions had to be created from scratch, relying on the leadership and experience of the Timorese resistance movement and diaspora. The English language issues cited in the ISEAS study as affecting the CLMV countries do apply to Timor-Leste, which uses Portuguese and Tetum as official languages.
On the other hand, that same Timorese resistance movement developed strong capabilities from dealing with the international community during the years of resistance. Unlike the CLMV countries at the time of their accession, Timor-Leste has had more experience in dealing with larger international forums, like the g7+ and CPLP (the Portuguese language community of countries). This capacity was most recently demonstrated by Dili’s hosting of the ASEAN People’s Forum.
The younger generation of Timorese leaders has also made great strides in English language capability as well as substantive aspects of policy and international relations. I can attest to this from personal experience:
the 30+ students in my August 2016 “Introduction to ASEAN” class at the Diplomatic Training Institute of Timor-Leste were articulate (in English), knowledgeable and energetic, far exceeding the capabilities of the Timorese officials I interacted with in the early days of independence. This impression comes both from the classroom experience and their examination papers.
Timor-Leste will present the ASEAN institutions with integration issues, like any new member. However, in many ways Timorese officials will be better equipped to deal with these issues. Either way, Timor-Leste is ready to begin the ASEAN accession process.