11 July 2024

Timor Leste’s Foreign Minister Dionisio Babo Soares has expressed confidence that the country will soon be accepted as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and it’s ready to contribute to the grouping’s economic strengths and security role in the region.

He said he is optimistic that Timor Leste’s membership of ASEAN could happen during Vietnam’s chairmanship of the grouping in 2020.

Speaking to Thai PBS World in a recent exclusive interview in Dili, he dismissed concerns that the region’s youngest democracy and poorest country would be a burden to ASEAN as Timor Leste has been making steady economic progress and has met most of ASEAN’s basic membership requirements.

Timor Leste, which gained independence in 2002 after 24 years under Indonesian rule,  applied to join ASEAN in 2011  and has since gradually fulfilled the grouping’s obligations to qualify for membership, including attendance of ASEAN meetings, establishing diplomatic missions in all of the ASEAN members’ capitals and improving its human resources and infrastructure to cope with ASEAN’s myriad activities.

“We are very glad that during the presidency of Thailand, the Thai Foreign Ministry and the government have given an extra push for Timore Leste’s association with ASEAN and that, of course, is a mark in itself after eight years in waiting,” he said of Thailand’s continuing support for Timor Leste’s ASEAN membership, especially when the country assumed the grouping’s chairmanship for 2019.

Soares noted that an ASEAN team visited Timor Leste in September to assess the country’s readiness in the areas of security, politics and justice. The cultural and social teams, he said, will visit early year to be followed by the economic team.

“And after they are done with their assessments, we expect a pronouncement from ASEAN member countries on what will be the best option for Timor Leste,” he said, adding that he was optimistic that “we will be accepted into the ASEAN family.”

Observers believe that it’s possible that as chairman of ASEAN next year, Vietnam might want to make history by having Timor Leste accepted as the grouping’s newest member.

“I am very optimistic that Vietnam will do so. We also have cooperation and close relations with Vietnam in the last couple of years,” Soares said.

When asked what he sees as Timor Leste’s potential contribution to ASEAN, the foreign minister said the country would be another economy that ASEAN can tap into.

“This is a new economy, a growing economy.  We are investing in infrastructure and other developments in areas of petroleum and gas in the Timor Sea.  There is a project coming up in the Timor Sea that is expected to have a life of 50 years and which can generate income of US$50 billion.  There are also other sources of the economy that Timor Leste can offer in the areas of agriculture and mining, tourism and unique culture of Timor Leste,” he said.

He said Timor Leste is already a full member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and is in a position to contribute in terms of promoting regional security and combatting transnational crimes.

“And also as part of the Portuguese-speaking countries we can facilitate the export of ASEAN products to countries in Europe and Africa which were once colonies of Portugal,” he said.

Dismissing concerns that as one of the least developed countries in the region, Timor Leste would be a burden to ASEAN, Soares  said: “We are not going to be a burden of ASEAN. We will actively contribute to the success of ASEAN plans in the future.”

(The interview with Foreign Minister Soares is part of a news documentary being produced by ThaiPBS World on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the referendum that paved the way for Timor Leste’s independence in 2002. The news documentary will be on air early next year)