Ball in Timor Leste’s court to full ASEAN membership

The small island nation’s has waited more than a decade to be an official member of ASEAN since its initial application in 2011.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


President Joko “Jokowi“ Widodo (right) welcomes Timor Leste Prime Minister José Maria Vasconcelos, widely known as Taur Matan Ruak, at the State Palace in Jakarta on his arrival for a state visit on Feb. 13, 2023.(The Jakarta Post/

May 19, 2023

JAKARTA – Timor Leste’s long path to becoming part of the ASEAN family has never been so clear since the recent adoption of a road map to full membership.

But ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn said on Monday that the process would be expedited once Dili did all the necessary legwork.

The small island nation’s has waited more than a decade to be an official member of ASEAN since its initial application in 2011. Despite its geographic location in Southeast Asia, the country struggled to get a nod from the 10-country bloc until late 2022, when it was admitted, in principle, as its 11th member.

The road map that was agreed last week by all member states at the ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, covers Dili’s obligations demanded by group’s three key political security, economy and sociocultural pillars.

Timor Leste’s economy with a gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$2.45 million in 2022, notably smaller than the other ASEAN member states, had been its biggest stumbling block, though the recent support from ASEAN has given the country the impetus to fulfill its obligations toward growth.

“We hope that Timor Leste will put in incredible work to accelerate the implementation of the road map and in due time, will become ready to be a full ASEAN member,” Kao said on Monday, as quoted by state news agency Antara.

“Collectively, ASEAN member states will also give their assistance to increase Timor Leste’s capacity, such that it will fulfill the necessary criteria.”

Indonesia’s top ASEAN cooperation official, Sidharto Suryodipuro, said last week that the Timor Leste road map, which was finalized in February, contained a list of legal treaties that Dili must accede to.

Sidharto also revealed that the most complicated part of the road map was drafting the economic requirements.

“It involved many aspects, including trade negotiations that Timor Leste would have to finalize with other ASEAN member states. The road map will help Timor Leste understand [its obligations] and make its own decisions in our development cooperation,” he told a press briefing in Labuan Bajo.

He added that Indonesia had “extended various forms of technical cooperation with and for” Dili. This year, it planned to invite some 30 Timorese civil servants to intern at various government ministries that were set to host ASEAN meetings, including the trade and defense ministries.

Indonesia is the 2023 ASEAN chair.

“So their foreign ministry officials will be interning at our Foreign Ministry […],”said Sidharto.

“This [internship scheme] is being done with the hope that they will not only gain experience, but also see what the legal side of ASEAN looks like.

“I think it will be very good [for Timorese civil servants] to exchange views with the Indonesian side and the departments with ASEAN cooperation obligations,” he said.

Meanwhile, Timor Leste Prime Minister José Maria Vasconcelos said in his remarks during the Labuan Bajo summit that the work to fulfill the country’s ASEAN obligations had already begun in its capital Dili.

“We believe that we are on the right track as shown by recent investment examples, [including] the modernization of the Presidente Nicolau International Airport in Dili and the recent underwater fiber optic cable system to improve the conditions for impending tourists and researchers,” he told ASEAN leaders.

Vasconcelos, widely known as Taur Matan Ruak, also suggested that restoration of hotels and other accommodation venues for future ASEAN events was also on the cards.

“Timor Leste is firm in fulfilling the international rules, as well as in strengthening ASEAN so that this community remains united and resilient in its core principles, shared values and norms,” he said.

Despite the size of its economy, in recent years Timor Leste has attracted praise in other aspects of governance, including kudos as the region’s most democratic country.

Since gaining independence from Indonesia in 1999, Dili rode the waves of Southeast Asia’s golden period of democratization from the early 2000s until the 2010s.

And while many of its neighbors are struggling to protect civil liberties today, Timor Leste has consistently stood apart with its strong democratic values.

ASEAN, which heavily relies on consensus-based decision-making, consists of 10 countries with vastly different political ideologies, from monarchies to military autocracies, and includes both liberal and illiberal democracies.

Analysts have noted that granting Timor Leste full membership would likely impact ASEAN’s political composition by giving a leg up to its pro-democracy member states.

scroll to top