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Getting Into ASEAN is ‘Harder Than Getting Into Heaven’

A conversation with Kupa Lopes, Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia.

Getting Into ASEAN is ‘Harder Than Getting Into Heaven’

Kupa Lopes, Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia.

Credit: Photo Supplied

Timor-Leste initially applied for membership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 11 years ago, but since then Dili has been frustrated and disappointed, finding entry into the club of 10 nations a difficult ask.

This prompted Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta to remark earlier this year that: “It seems as if to reach ASEAN, you have to fulfill all the criteria to enter heaven. And then the next step is ASEAN.”

Membership seemed assured this year after Cambodia assumed the role of ASEAN’s rotating chair, with Prime Minister Hun Sen promising to do all he could to ensure Timor-Leste’s admittance as the bloc’s eleventh member state. That was not to be.

Concerns within the group, particularly in Singapore, remain. They include Dili’s ability to pay the costs that come with membership, its lack of institutions, and Timor-Leste’s relationship with China amid Beijing’s growing assertiveness in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

However, Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia, Kupa Lopes, says he expects his country to be admitted to ASEAN next year after Indonesia takes over the chairmanship of the group in November.

Lopes spoke with The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt about his country’s aspirations and its relationship with ASEAN, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Australia.