UCA News reporter, Phnom Penh – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has asked Timor-Leste to buy Cambodian rice and invest in local rice mills and warehousing after backing Dili's bid to join the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN).
The request was made at a meeting between Hun Sen and Timor-Leste's Foreign Minister Adaljiza Albertina Xavier Reis Magno in Phnom Penh, where the pair also discussed free trade and double taxation agreements.
Both countries are among the poorest in Southeast Asia and their economies have been severely punished by the Covid-19 pandemic, with Cambodia's rice exports slumping 11 percent last year.
Hun Sen's personal secretary Eang Sophalleth told journalists the premier requested Timor-Leste to consider rice imports in order to stabilize rice supplies between the countries.
It was also formally announced that Hun Sen, as this year's chair of ASEAN, would assist Timor-Leste in becoming become the 11th member of ASEAN.
Timor-Leste officially applied for ASEAN membership in March 2011, but its lack of financial clout, infrastructure and its relatively small population of just 1.3 million people has resulted in some ASEAN members such as Singapore opposing its bid.
Membership of ASEAN is seen as one means of reducing poverty in Timor-Leste, still struggling to recover from decades of conflict and Indonesian occupation which ended with independence in 2002.
About 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line while child mortality and malnutrition rates also remain high.
"The problem for Timor-Leste is other ASEAN members simply do not want to pay for it, and the lack of infrastructure and bureaucracy means it would struggle to meet its obligations, like taking its turn as chair of ASEAN," said one analyst who declined to be named.
As this year's chair of ASEAN, Hun Sen has been criticized for pushing Timor-Leste and finding a resolution to the crisis in Myanmar to the top of the regional agenda.
One analyst said the Cambodian prime minister was hoping to use those issues to deflect attention away from the bigger problems confronting ASEAN, in particular the South China Sea and disputes with chief ally China.
"That and finalizing a code of conduct for disputed sea lanes remain the biggest headache for ASEAN and the Cambodians are doing everything they can to avoid it," he said. "I doubt they will get Timor-Leste into ASEAN, nor will they resolve anything in Myanmar."
In a separate announcement, Cambodia's Foreign Ministry said the annual ASEAN foreign ministers' retreat, where members discuss frankly and openly the issues that need to be handled in the year ahead, would now be held on Feb. 16-17.
It had initially been slated for mid-January but was postponed due to "travel difficulties" experienced by ASEAN members.