Kornchanok Raksaseri – It has been eight years since Timor-Leste submitted a formal application to be a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) but so far, the regional bloc has not accepted what would be its 11th member.
Timor-Leste Foreign Minister Dionisio Babo Soares, however, expects to hear some good news this year while Thailand is the chair of Asean.
"I toured all countries of Asean. And all of them showed no hesitation that Timor-Leste can be a member," said Mr Babo Soares in Bangkok where he joined the Asean Ministerial Meeting.
"One of the concerns is they want to see Timor-Leste not only as a democratic country but one with strong institutions, a country that can rely on itself and not succumb to other powers, world powers," the minister said.
"I told them that Timor-Leste has a very long history of fighting against colonialism," he said, citing an example of recent agreement with Australia on maritime boundaries and Indonesia on land boundaries. "Timor-Leste meets the requirements of an Asean member," he said.
Geographically, Timor-Leste is certainly part of Asean. The second criteria is it must be recognised by all Asean members. Timor-Leste has an embassy in each of the Asean countries, as well as economic relations which meet the minimum criteria, he said.
Looking into its strength in terms of the three pillars of the Asean Community, Timor-Leste has launched an Asean mobilisation programme to prepare the country for Asean membership.
From Sept 2-6, a fact-finding mission from Asean will visit the country to assess its readiness in the political and security respects. The assessment on the economic pillar will follow while the assessment on the socio-cultural pillar will come later, the minister said.
The fourth criteria is its readiness to hold meetings as a roving chair of Asean. Timor-Leste has hosted countries' leaders at many international events, he said.
Other challenges might include legislation and practicalities. Experts from Asean Secretariat have been advising Timor-Leste which makes him feel confident, he said.
On human capital, over 15% of the population can communicate well in English and experts in all Asean languages work at its universities, the minister said.
"We have more than enough people with masters degrees from international universities around the world, and there are also people with PhDs in different areas," he said. "We have made a lot of progress and I think Asean will be able to announce something by the end of this year, or next year," he said.
Over the past two years, Timor-Leste has diversified from oil dependence to mining. It has also invested in international markets including bonds and equities. Singapore is its biggest trade partner, followed by Australia, and Indonesia. The fourth is Thailand, which it exports coffee to and imports rice from, he said.