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East Timor Needs Five Years to Join ASEAN: PM

KUALA LUMPUR, July 27, 2006 (AFP) - East Timor may need at least five years before the fledgling nation is ready to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta said Thursday. Ramos-Horta, attending an ASEAN meeting for the first time in his new post, said Dili now has diplomatic ties with all 10 ASEAN countries after establishing relations with military ruled Myanmar. "We had made in East Timor the strategic decision to join ASEAN sometime in the future," Ramos-Horta told a news conference on the sidelines annual ASEAN foreign ministers' meetings here. "I personally believe that it will take a few years, maybe five or more before we are able to join ASEAN as a full member," said Ramos-Horta, the former foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner who had represented his country as an observer in the 10-nation regional bloc. The former Portuguese colony has been an ASEAN observer since 2002 but is still struggling to meet the strict criteria of the grouping including trade liberalisation requirements, diplomats and analysts have said. Ramos-Horta has said East Timor will also sign an ASEAN non-aggression treaty at some point in the first key step towards joining ASEAN. East Timor last year became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia's top security discussion group that includes the foreign ministers of the United States, China, Russia and the European Union. The country has embassies in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur and in the next few weeks will open diplomatic missions in Bangkok, Manila and other Southeast Asian capitals, Ramos-Horta said. Myanmar "has agreed to establish diplomatic relations with us now," he said. But he also said that even if it has diplomatic ties with Myanmar, East Timor is willing to offer sanctuary to dissidents from the military-ruled nation. "If Burmese members of the community, Burmese dissidents, if democracy activists feel safe to establish themselves in our country, why not?," said Ramos-Horta, a former political activist in his nation's struggle for independence from Indonesia. "We will remain committed to working with our neighbours... in doing whatever we can to encourage gradual and democratic change in Myanmar." ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. mba/dk/jah


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