Subject: ST: East Timor seeks to join Asean, S. Pacific Forum

East Timor seeks to join Asean, S. Pacific Forum August 1, 2000

Dual membership would be ideal for Dili while Asean entry would give the country access to more markets and greater voice on international stage By JAMES EAST STRAITS TIMES THAILAND BUREAU

BANGKOK -- East Timor wants the best of both worlds: membership in Asean and a hook-up with Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands by joining the South Pacific Forum.

Although dual membership is forbidden by Asean, East Timorese leader Jose Ramos Horta is calling for a special dispensation.

""There might be some loophole,'' he told The Straits Times.

""East Timor is more or less on the borderline of South-east Asia and the Pacific. I hope God Almighty inspires the Asean leaders to permit the unprecedented situation and allow us to be a member of both Asean and the South Pacific Forum.''

Asean invited the fledgling nation to observe the annual ministerial meeting held in the Thai capital last week.

Independence leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta said that Asean would be their first choice but added that the final decision could not be made until after elections are held in East Timor and the country's first Parliament has considered the issue.

East Timor is currently a UN-administered protectorate following a vote last year in which the vast majority of the population opted for independence from Indonesia.

Dual membership would be the ideal situation for East Timor. The island is predominantly Melanesian and closer to Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands forum-member countries.

But membership of Asean would give impoverished East Timor access to more markets and a greater voice on the international stage.

It would also give it an international forum for negotiating with former ruler Indonesia.

"Almost everyone thinks it is more important to join Asean,'' said Mr Ramos-Horta.

East Timor knows that if it joins Asean it may affect development aid that Pacific Forum countries receive from the European Union under the Lome Convention.

East Timor's infrastructure was almost totally devastated by the militias and it desperately needs as much help and money as it can get its hands on if it is to reconstruct its economy, create employment, rebuild schools health centres and government offices and tackle rampant malaria, TB and dengue fever.

But a Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman has said that it was still too premature for Asean to officially discuss the dual membership option.

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