Why Timor-Leste Decided to Take a Stand on Myanmar

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Why Timor-Leste Decided to Take a Stand on Myanmar

Southeast Asia’s youngest nation is advocating for a plural and just order in the region, even at the cost of its long-sought accession to ASEAN.

Why Timor-Leste Decided to Take a Stand on Myanmar

Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos-Horta meets with Aung Myo Min, Minister of Human Rights of the National Unity Government of Myanmar, in Dili, Timor-Leste, on August 23, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Presidência da República Democrática de Timor-Leste

Last month, Xanana Gusmao, the prime minister of Timor-Leste, the youngest nation in Southeast Asia, reaffirmed his country’s stance that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has to resolve the human rights crisis in Myanmar and that it would not accept the military junta regime. The comment was later backed up by Timor-Leste’s president, Jose Ramos Horta. These comments prompted Myanmar’s military government to expel Dili’s top diplomat from the country. While this expulsion may hinder Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN this year, the government’s stand on Myanmar reflects an alternative version of regional order – one that can accommodate different fundamental values, such as order and justice, without trading one for the other.

Order and justice are two seemingly essential yet incompatible values that have long been endorsed by the international community. While the former reflects the importance of maintaining the status quo and stability, such as international order, sovereignty, and state rights, the latter reflects the pursuit of human rights and potential change. It has been represented by the development of international human rights norms, the idea of humanitarian intervention, and notions of global justice.

Pursuing one value may sometimes sacrifice the other, such as in a humanitarian intervention, through which the international community can breach the sovereignty of one or more states in order to protect their citizens. Moreover, each state and individual prioritizes these values differently. ASEAN, a regional organization with 10 member states with diverse political systems, ethnicities, cultures, and languages, has tended to prioritize order over justice by centering the principle of mutual non-interference, first mentioned at the bloc’s founding in 1967 and later reinforced in 1976. ASEAN endorses consensus, cooperation, and mutual respect among its member states, and human rights norms take a back seat compared to the goal of preserving regional order and stability.

ASEAN’s choice to prioritize order over justice has been reflected in the fact that it has chosen to verbally condemn the violence unleashed by Myanmar’s military junta against the people since the coup of February 2021, rather than to take collective action to punish it.

ASEAN’s need for consensus on the Myanmar issue has resulted in a relatively weak response from the bloc. On April 24, 2021, the leaders of the 10 ASEAN member states, including the Myanmar junta led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, agreed on the Five-Point Consensus. This called for an immediate end to violence in the country, dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy, the delivery of humanitarian assistance by ASEAN, and the dispatch of the special envoy to Myanmar to meet with all parties to the conflict.

To date, the Five-Point Consensus peace plan has stagnated, with Myanmar’s military merely paying lip service to the agreement, while continuing to use violence against civilians. Meanwhile, the promised humanitarian assistance had not been delivered effectively by ASEAN members due to a lack of support and commitment. Many states and organizations, including Timor-Leste, have called for a reevaluation of the consensus and urged ASEAN to take stronger actions on the Myanmar issue.

Many may wonder why Timor-Leste has chosen to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar, a stance which may affect its pending membership in ASEAN. To start with, Timor-Leste is one of the few democracies in the region, which has a progressive legal and political commitment to defending human rights and democratic values. Indeed, the country has condemned Myanmar’s military junta publicly since it took power and started killing and imprisoning civilians and dissidents. Many Timorese people have felt a deep empathy for those suppressed or killed in Myanmar and urged the Timorese government to take meaningful action to support the pro-democracy National Unity Government (NUG), given the two nations’ shared history and experiences of resisting power and injustice.

Timor-Leste’s solidarity with Myanmar should not merely be viewed as an individual’s random act, nor simply a reflection of an emerging norm of justice that encroaches on ASEAN’s prime values of order and state sovereignty. Rather, it should be understood as a political proposal for an alternative ASEAN order, where all member states and individuals are able to endorse and embody plurality and coexistence of values freely in spite of member states’ different prioritizing of values.

ASEAN recognizes the significance of non-state actors as well as member states. Multi-track diplomacy has been adopted by the bloc to accommodate various types of voices and encourage the cooperation of state and non-state actors, such as the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF). Moreover, pursuing the status quo order through the current framework may limit some less powerful states or individuals to pursue their own values and political scenarios, since order and stability often encourage reproductions of power asymmetry, exclusion, and assimilation. Pursuing order without recognizing value plurality and potential incompatibilities of values risks compromising the diversity of the region, and could even promote violence and oppression.

At first glance, Timor-Leste appears to value justice over order, which may challenge the foundational principles of ASEAN and even endanger the nation’s eventual accession to the bloc. However, the government’s “appeal to the international community to join forces to promote the restoration of democratic order and human rights in the region” not just highlighted the fact that justice is arguably fundamental to order, but also showed the necessity of creating a plural order where a minimum of justice and order are ensured amid conflicting values, which could be an important yet undervalued contribution to ASEAN.

Instead of proposing that ASEAN member states adopt the same democratic system or human rights values, or denouncing the legitimacy of the organization for not meeting these standards, Timor-Leste, by speaking out about Myanmar, is effectively urging all of us to pay attention to the danger of pursuing the “ASEAN way” according to a single value and ideology, without recognizing and honoring the differences and uniqueness of each state and individual.

Democracy and human rights may not be the only political systems or infrastructures and values that will be chosen by the ASEAN member states. However democratic systems with commitments to justice at both domestic and regional levels help create a relatively sustainable and enabling condition where plural values are enshrined, and the emergence and dominance of a single ideology or power within the region is not easily attainable.

Guest Author

Li-Li Chen

Li-Li Chen is a current lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Universidade Nasional Timor Lorosa’e of Timor-Leste. Her research interests include the dynamics of gender, human security and peacekeeping, politics of LGBT rights, as well as politics in Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Timor-Leste. Her publications are accessible on The Diplomat, E-IR, Devpolicy, New Mandala, etc.