Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos-Horta in a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart on Tuesday said he hoped Asia’s youngest country could join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year.
In a joint news conference with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Ramos-Horta said that his government had fulfilled all requirements to be the newest member of the bloc, and his country expected Widodo would maximize his role as the chair of ASEAN next year to accelerate the acceptance of Timor-Leste as the 11th member of the regional grouping.
“I’m very grateful that Indonesia remains very committed to Timor Leste’s membership in ASEAN,” Ramos-Horta said after meeting with Jokowi. “We hope to join ASEAN during Indonesia’s presidency to be highly symbolic.”
Jokowi could be seen nodding his head in agreement while Ramos-Horta expressed his hope, but he did not make any comment about Timor-Leste’s request to join ASEAN during the conference.
Ramos-Horta, a former independence fighter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was sworn in as president of Timor-Leste on May 20 as the country marked its 20th anniversary of independence from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.
He made his first bilateral visit to Indonesia — Southeast Asia’s largest economy and a traditional first stop for new Timorese leaders. He was hosted by Jokowi at an official ceremony Tuesday in the presidential palace in Bogor.
The two leaders on Tuesday agreed to increase trade and transportation cooperation, and Jokowi pledged to strengthen his administration role to participate in development in Timor-Leste, including in infrastructure, banking, telecommunications as well as non-oil and gas sector.
During his weeklong visit to Indonesia, Ramos-Horta is scheduled to meet with ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi to discuss regional issues and his country’s request for ASEAN membership. He also plans to meet Indonesia’s former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and give public lectures at three universities.
Timor-Leste officially applied for full membership of ASEAN in 2011, but ASEAN has yet to respond due to the nation’s small economy and relatively high poverty levels. Members like much wealthier Singapore feared Timor-Leste would be a burden and slowed its bid to realize the ASEAN Economic Community.
The U.N. estimates nearly half of Timor-Leste’s population lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day, and for every 1,000 babies born in the country, 42 die before their 5th birthday because of malnutrition.
The former Portuguese colony was occupied by Indonesia for a quarter-century and gained independence after a U.N.-sponsored referendum in 1999. Indonesia’s military responded with scorched-earth attacks that devastated Timor-Leste’s half of the island of Timor.
The transition to democracy has been rocky, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption. Its economy is reliant on dwindling offshore oil revenues.