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Economic progress is slow, but other signs are good for emerging nation

Timor Leste makes its bid for ASEAN membership

Economic progress is slow, but other signs are good for emerging nation
Roberto Sarmento de Oliveira Soares, Secretary of State for ASEAN Affairs, hopes membership is not far away

January 23, 2013

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The Timor Leste government has admitted slow economic progress may hamper its bid to gain membership of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But it remains undaunted and optimistic about the plan.

The country made its official application in 2011 under the Fourth Constitutional Government. It is now under review by the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group.

Roberto Sarmento de Oliveira Soares, Secretary of State for ASEAN Affairs, told that it does not matter when the application is passed, but it is hoped that it will be achieved within five years, under the Fifth Constitutional Government.

Among other things, membership requirements include a demonstration of progress in socio-cultural, political and economic fields. Benchmarks would include the ability to allocate enough budget to participate in at least 1,000 world meetings and host at least 100 international events annually. The application also depends on the nation’s progress in developing infrastructure.

According to Soares, the economy is the main challenge for Timor Leste because it cannot compete in a free market, as ASEAN members do. But he believes that by accelerating development in areas such as fishing, marine tourism and farming, the country will be able to hit its targets.

“Now we are working hard on the economic sector in order to be able to offer something to other ASEAN states,” he said.

Political analyst Ermelindo das Neves Mendonca, from the University of Timor Leste, said the country’s improved democracy and increasing recognition from the international community are good indicators for acceptance in ASEAN.

He admitted there is much work still to be done on the country’s infrastructure, such as the reconstruction of damaged roads, in order to make economic wheels turn faster. But the political track records of Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, and probably the support of other countries such as Australia and the US, will benefit the country, he said.

The country’s return to political stability is also enormously helpful to its cause. In December last year the UN Integrated Mission In Timor Leste handed over security and peace keeping duties to the national police.

Factors like these gave Jose Luis Guterres, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, confidence to invite the new secretary-general of ASEAN, Le Luong Minh, to come and see the improvements for himself. And Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao will soon embark on a tour of ASEAN countries to promote Timor Leste and call for their help in developing it further.

As Guterres has pointed out, 80 percent of Timor Leste’s trade is with Indonesia and Singapore so there is plenty of potential for expansion to other member states. There is also great potential in its undermanaged oil and gas reserves and other natural resources -- including gold -- but optimizing them would call for the participation of ASEAN members.

This outside investment process has already begun as the nation is requesting foreign firms to submit proposals for several of the various infrastructure projects, such as roads and ports. 


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