Despite their political differences, outgoing and incoming leadership of East Timor said that its bid to become the 11th member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a mutual goal that they continue to strive.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said East Timor’s ASEAN membership is “a very long dream.”
“This is one of the few things that is a consensus between the leadership of Timor Leste, despite the differences,” he said in an interview last month at a hotel near the headquarters of his Fretilin party.
Alkatiri also described Indonesia as East Timor’s “biggest supporter” in its efforts to join ASEAN.
Indonesia was one of the regional bloc’s founding countries when it was established in 1967, and is regarded as its de facto leader. Indonesia endorsed East Timor’s ASEAN bid when it formally submitted its application in 2011 during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship.
Alkatiri has been leading a short-lived, minority government and the party lost to a three-party coalition led by independence hero Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) in the May 12 parliamentary election.
Gusmao, who is expected to nominate former president Taur Matan Ruak as the next prime minister this week, said East Timor is doing its best to become an ASEAN member.
“We understand some (member) countries think we are not ready, but sooner or later, we will be a member,” Gusmao said in an interview at his party CNRT headquarters.
Singapore, the current chair, has been reluctant to welcome East Timor into the bloc, but has said it looked forward to East Timor meeting the requirements to allow it to become a member.
So far, East Timor has met two of the requirements to be an ASEAN member: The country is located in Southeast Asia and has embassies in all 10 member states.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after hosting an ASEAN leaders’ summit in April that the topic was discussed during the forum, but “there was no extended discussion of the matter in this meeting.”
Luis da Costa Ximenes, director of the Dili-based conflict-prevention NGO Belun said there is a different level of regional engagement with fellow civil society organizations in neighboring countries.
He added that members of the network have been lending support for each other in their advocacy on various issues such as human rights and development.
“There are national East Timor issues, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing that is also a regional issue,” he said.
“Civil societies in East Timor is already part of the civil societies network in Southeast Asia and at this level, we always campaign for East Timor’s admission to ASEAN,” Ximenes said.
Veteran Thai journalist and long time ASEAN observer Kavi Chongkittavorn said it is Singapore that East Timor, which is one of the most democratic country in the region, has to convince to secure support for its ASEAN admission.
“East Timor membership in ASEAN is long overdue,” Kavi said, acknowledging that East Timor officials would still need capacity-building training and other preparations in the political security, economy and social cultural communities, as the other previous new members did before they gained admission to the bloc.
He added that East Timor’s admission to ASEAN is also about the democratic attitude in the region and Thailand, which will assume the next bloc chairmanship after Singapore, would admit East Timor for good.
“East Timor’s membership to ASEAN will increase the democratic weight within the grouping,” he said.
Read the full interview with East Timor’s outgoing Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri in Arab News