(UPDATE) PHNOM PENH: Southeast Asian leaders agreed on Friday to allow East Timor to join the 10-nation Asean regional bloc, according to a statement released by summit host Cambodia.
“We the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations… agreed in principle to admit Timor-Leste to be the 11th member of Asean,” the statement said.
East Timor is the youngest country in Southeast Asia, having gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 after 24 years of occupation.
During their gathering in Phnom Penh, regional leaders agreed to grant East Timor observer status and the right to attend Asean meetings and summit sessions, according to the statement.
The bloc will now draw up a roadmap setting out the criteria East Timor must hit before being granted full membership.
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The former Portuguese colony is one of the poorest countries in the world and is grappling with high levels of inequality, malnourishment, and unemployment.
President Jose Ramos-Horta has long campaigned for Asean membership and an application was first submitted in 2011.
Ramos-Horta, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, won a second term in office in April, having previously served from 2007 to 2012.
Indonesia — which takes over the Asean chair from Cambodia in 2023 — had hoped East Timor can officially join the Asean family next year.
But Philippine Assistant Secretary for Asean Affairs Dan Espiritu said the timeline for full membership was not clear.
“Not because we would like to delay their entry, but we must make sure they are really ready for the obligations and responsibilities,” he told reporters in Phnom Penh.
Asean began as a five-member bloc in 1967 and has gradually expanded, with Cambodia as the most recent addition in 1999.