Two years after submitting its application to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Timor-Leste is one step closer in its effort to become a member of the regional bloc.
At its 22nd summit in Brunei Darussalam in late April, the regional body discussed a greater role for the young nation in future activities, and formed working groups to examine its membership bid, top officials said.
"We have a working group studying Timor-Leste's admission based on its integration to the ASEAN economic agreement. The political-security and socio-cultural councils will also carry out studies," ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh said during a post-summit briefing at the organisation's secretariat in Jakarta.
Minh said Timor-Leste has expressed reservations about its ability to meet its obligations as a member. He did not elaborate, but observers say the tiny country might not have the human and financial resources to attend all ASEAN gatherings, which number about a thousand a year.
ASEAN members are considering allowing Timor-Leste to participate in selected activities "within the need for capacity building", according to the summit's final declaration.
Indonesia has been a staunch supporter of its former 27th province's admission to the regional bloc, and lobbied for it during the April 24th-25th ASEAN summit.
"There's a little bit of progress on Timor-Leste. The meeting participants agreed to consider that Timor-Leste be allowed to participate in the next ASEAN sessions," Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters after arriving from Brunei on April 26th.
Timor-Leste seceded from Indonesia in 1999 after a landslide referendum and gained full independence in May 2002. It submitted its formal application to join ASEAN in 2011.
Singapore had been reluctant to welcome Timor-Leste into the bloc, arguing that its relative poverty could hinder the nascent country in meeting strict requirements for trade liberalisation, thus stalling the shift towards regional economic integration by 2015.
Efforts are already under way to narrow the development gap between Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and the other six ASEAN members, in preparation for 2015. Timor-Leste would have to be added to that list. About half its 1.1 million citizens live below the poverty line.
However, asked whether Singapore still expressed doubts about Timor-Leste's admission to the group, Secretary General Minh said it now has the backing of all member states.
One of the poorest nations in Asia, Timor-Leste nevertheless enjoys high economic growth – 10% in 2012 – thanks to oil revenues and government spending on electrification and roads, according to a 2013 survey by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
Dinny Mutiah, a postgraduate student at the Paramadina Graduate School of Diplomacy in Jakarta, told Khabar that she supports the young state's admission to ASEAN.
"Its membership could add more weight to ASEAN's votes in the United Nations and widen the market for the existing bloc members," she said.
"Timor-Leste is now more politically stable compared to the early years of its disintegration [from Indonesia]," Mutiah added.