Should Timor-Leste Turn to Portugal?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Lirio Da Fonseca

Should Timor-Leste Turn to Portugal?

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Timor-Leste, the nation birthed out of a traumatic twenty-five year struggle for liberation from Indonesian occupation, remains one of Southeast Asia’s most vulnerable states. As Timor-Leste continues its long wait for membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (a prospect that looks dim) it would do well to consider another less conventional option that has a higher likelihood of success: an enhanced relationship with Portugal including limited political unification. Counterintuitive though it may appear to a superficial observer, looking to Lisbon makes just as much sense for Timor-Leste as looking to Jakarta or Canberra, or Beijing for that matter. Southeast Asia faces a tumultuous decade as it prepares for economic, political-security, and socio-cultural integration. Timor-Leste remains marginal in the minds of ASEAN leaders and faces a Godot-like wait for a membership that will occur too late, if ever. Timor-Leste shares centuries of history with Portugal. The cultural, religious and linguistic orientation of the country is oriented towards many poles and Lisbon is one of the strongest. A modus vivendi political arrangement, similar to those of other overseas territories and collectivities of European states, including France and Portugal itself, would help Timor-Leste to grow economically and strengthen the state-building project it has embarked upon.

Even the most optimistic observers would admit that the microstate of Timor-Leste faces challenges that threaten to unravel the progress made in the first 13 years of independence. It is true that Timor-Leste has been more successful than other post-conflict countries in erecting state institutions and creating a sustainable economy. When compared with other newly independent states, such as crisis wracked South Sudan or the politically paralyzed non-state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Timor-Leste looks to have done remarkably well in mitigating ethnic conflict; this is even more remarkable considering that Timor-Leste has speakers of more than 33 different languages from two separate language families and dozens of distinct ethnic and local identities.

All this is not to say that Timor-Leste will turn into another Singapore anytime soon, notwithstanding the hopes of its current leadership. The threat of political violence is a recurring one in a society still scarred by the atrocities of Indonesian troops and their locally allied militias. Political violence in 2006 prompted a United Nations intervention that helped to stabilize the country but divisions have not been fully healed. Timor-Leste must also figure out how to provide jobs for its huge, relative to the current population, youth bulge. Those under the age of 15 represent 42 percent of the population, easily making Timor-Leste the youngest country in Southeast Asia. That number will only grow in the future as the total fertility rate is one of the highest in the world at 5.01 births per Timorese woman.

Few prospects await this growing youth cohort, as the country remains one of the poorest, least developed and rural countries in Asia. The United Nations Human Development rankings put Timor-Leste at 133rd, slightly above Syria. The population of Timor-Leste is overwhelmingly rural and heavily reliant upon agriculture for employment if not for overall exports. Coffee has in recent years become a lucrative export but the economy and government of Timor-Leste is still dependent on petroleum. Oil is relied upon to fund nearly all state services including a bloated public sector. There is not enough to sustain a long-term development strategy that would utilize oil to create a sovereign wealth fund like that of Norway. When oil runs out Timor-Leste will face difficulties in providing basic services for its burgeoning population.

The viability of Timor-Leste as a state is one that was raised prior to independence and has been raised continually. Even today, the countries dependence on outside benefactors cannot be ignored. This dependence will not abate in the future but will grow. Who provides that help to the country is of critical importance for the future of Timor-Leste.

Joining ASEAN is unlikely to create the solutions to development that Timor-Leste hopes for. The largest trading partners of Timor-Leste include the United States, Indonesia, China and several Southeast Asian countries. Yet there is little that ASEAN can offer to Timor-Leste to improve its prospects for rapid, equitable and sustainable economic development. ASEAN countries still protect their agricultural sectors with sensitive lists and highly sensitive lists, which include staples such as rice, sugar and coffee. Even the more developed ASEAN economies, like Thailand and Malaysia, rely on agricultural exports and are not complementary trading partners for Timor-Leste.

Unlike the European Union, ASEAN is under-funded and unable to extend economic assistance or development aid to the degree needed by Timor-Leste. The capacity for ASEAN to induce reform from prospective member states, either economic or political, is almost non-existent. There exists little incentive for Timor-Leste to create better governance or structural economic reforms in order to join ASEAN and ASEAN has little in the way of funding to entice Timor-Leste to reform. Joining ASEAN provides Timor-Leste with little gains economically or politically. The country will be hard pressed to meet the barest of obligations of an ASEAN member which includes attending hundreds of meetings yearly and hosting ASEAN Summits and can expect little help from ASEAN partners.

The Portuguese Option

In lieu of ASEAN, Timor-Leste should look to Portugal. Today the thought that an independent, former colony would willingly seek to form any sort of political association with its former colonizer is heretical if not downright diabolical to many. This is not an argument for tropical lusophonism redux. Portugal today is not the Portugal of the Esatdo Novo that expired with the Caetano regime during the Carnation Revolution, when Timor-Leste was on the cusp of achieving independence before being invaded by Indonesia in 1975. Portugal has made the transition from right-wing authoritarian dictator to a successful liberal democracy firmly ensconced in the bosom of the European Union. Having made this transition without bloodshed Portugal has much to offer Timor-Leste.

Portuguese peacekeepers were accepted during the 2006 political crisis in Timor-Leste and have played important roles in the country. The judiciary, police force, military and bureaucracy would all benefit from Portuguese assistance, which would be facilitated by the use of Portuguese, one of two official languages in Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste has deep cultural ties to Portugal that are exemplified by its use of Portuguese, along with Tetum, as the official languages of the country. Roman Catholicism introduced by the Portuguese is the dominant religion in Timor-Leste, making it only one of two predominantly Christian nations in East Asia. The blending of Portuguese and Timorese cultures and customs is deep and resembles other former Portuguese colonies. Timorese today are entitled to Portuguese citizenship and many still use their Portuguese passports to travel abroad. The ties between Timor-Leste and Portugal are familial. Many Timorese, including freedom fighter and first President Xanana Gusmao, have Portuguese ancestry.

Portugal acknowledged the multiracial character of its overseas possessions and the taking on of Portuguese identity by those in its former colonies is not a superficial mimicry but a melding of cultures, peoples and traditions. Even during the arch-conservative estado novo of Salazar, Portugal was not swept by the racist or fascist policies of other European states. The durable presence of Portuguese customs, language and identity in Timor-Leste is a testament to this.

Aside from the linguistic, cultural and historic ties between Timor-Leste and Portugal there is much to enable a political association and nothing that would seriously preclude it. Although the geographical distance between Portugal and Timor-Leste could not be further there is no reason this would prevent a political association. Several former colonial powers in Europe remain in association and political union with far-flung former colonial possessions. France is the most significant example of this. It is often forgotten that the borders of France do not end only at the Pyrenees or the Mediterranean. France has several overseas departments, including French Guiana, Mayotte, Reunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. These overseas departments are considered as no less a part of France than those in Metropolitan France and vote in all French elections as well as for representation in the European Parliament. Their distance from Metropolitan France has not prevented their being considered entirely French.

As with France, Portugal also administers the Azores and Madeira, which are thousands of miles distant from metropolitan Portugal. Portugal and Timor-Leste could model their new relationship on any number of political arrangements that have been reached between states and former colonial possessions. The most relevant of these would be those that are between Western states and island nations found in the Pacific. The United States, New Zealand and Australia all maintain association agreements between smaller island states in the Pacific Ocean. For the most part these agreements are mutually beneficial. Timor-Leste would gain from an agreement which would create the opportunity for significant investment from Portugal to help develop critical economic sectors including tourism, services, and agriculture. Unlike in the past there is no incentive for Portugal to send hordes of young men to “colonize” the island.

Timor-Leste’s booming population already retains Portuguese citizenship but in the future this may be revoked. Timor-Leste should move now to ensure that its people have the opportunity to study, live and work in Portugal and the European Union. Portugal has a declining population and one that is aging rapidly. This is complementary with Timor-Leste’s young and growing population. The cyclical migration patterns that were once a common feature of the past will reemerge with Portuguese, both old and young, traveling to Timor-Leste to enjoy tropical beaches and Timorese migrating between Timor-Leste and Portugal for work, study, and tourism. Portugal will once again have a backdoor to Asia and Timor-Leste could gain in governance, security and economic stability.

Jordan Peterson is a master’s of ASEAN studies student at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand. 

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