East Timor hopes to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by 2012 but not as a “basket case” which might embarrass the bloc like Burma, President Jose Ramos-Horta said.
Addressing the Foreign Correspondents Association here late Saturday, Ramos-Horta said his six-year-old country was improving its economy and other institutions in order to be ready to join the Southeast Asian grouping.
Burma, formerly known as Burma, joined Asean in 1997 but has been a controversial member because of alleged human rights violations, including the continued detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and torture claims.
Burma’s ruling generals have also come under fire for blocking urgent humanitarian relief to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Irrawaddy delta region.
No Asean country is opposing East Timor’s membership and it largest member, Indonesia, has assigned a senior diplomat to help the young nation in its membership preparations, Ramos-Horta said.
“I hope that by 2012 we can (join Asean),” he told his audience of journalists and diplomats.
“We set this target as pressure on ourselves to work harder in order to be eligible to join Asean because obviously Asean countries, with the embarrassing problems of Burma/Burma, they wouldn’t want a basket case, an unstable new member,” he added.
“So we have to work hard,” said the 58-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt in February, underlining instability in the impoverished country with a violent recent past.
East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 as it moved towards formal independence, starting a brutal 24-year occupation.
The country won its freedom in a 1999 UN-backed referendum that was marred by violence as Indonesian-backed militias laid waste to much of the country in a scorched earth campaign that displaced hundreds of thousands.
The country gained formal independence in 2002.
East Timor also faces formidable economic challenges despite massive reserves of oil and gas, analysts said.
The country is the least developed in Southeast Asia, with around 50% unemployment and most of the population surviving off subsistence farming.
It remains dependent on foreign assistance, with its its oil and gas industry still to be fully developed.
Ramos-Horta, a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for championing East Timor’s struggle for independence, meanwhile urged the International Criminal Court to indict Burma’s military rulers for crimes against humanity.
But he continued to disagree with the United States and other Western nations on the effectiveness of imposing economic sanctions.
“If I were the prosecutor general of the International Criminal Court, I will find substantive evidence to start indicting them for crimes against humanity for what has been happening over the last 20 years in Burma,” he said, referring to Burma by its former name.
He added, however: “I always oppose sanctions on impoverished countries and the sad thing is that powerful countries mostly impose sanctions on the weaker countries with which they don’t agree.”
Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.