PHNOM PENH: Timor-Leste is to be admitted "in principle" as the 11th member state of ASEAN, Southeast Asian leaders gathered in Phnom Penh said in a statement on Friday (Nov 11).
The country will be granted observer status at ASEAN meetings, including at summit plenaries.
The statement said that there will be an "objective criteria-based roadmap" for Timor-Leste's full membership.
The leaders had discussed this at a plenary session held in the Cambodian capital on Friday. Myanmar's military leaders were not in attendance, as they have been shut out from high-level meetings.
ASEAN leaders said that all member states and external parties shall fully support Timor-Leste to achieve the milestones by providing "capacity building assistance and any other support needed for its full membership in ASEAN".
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that ASEAN has been discussing the issue of Timor-Leste’s membership "for some time".
The nation of 1.37 million people gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 and officially applied for ASEAN membership in 2011.
"Singapore welcomes, in principle, Timor-Leste’s eventual membership of ASEAN," said Mr Lee.
"This should take place in accordance with an objective, criteria-based ASEAN roadmap."
The roadmap, to be formulated by the ASEAN Co-ordinating Council, will be reported to the 42nd ASEAN Summit for adoption.
He added that ASEAN should help Timor-Leste build capacity, and the association should work with external partners on this.
Cambodia, which is this year's ASEAN summit chair, was the last country to join ASEAN, in 1999.
The association was formed by five member states in 1967 - Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Brunei was added to the grouping in 1984, when it gained independence from the British.
Membership further expanded in the 1990s as the Cold War ended and Vietnam, which normalised relations with the United States in 1995, joined ASEAN in the same year. Myanmar and Laos followed in 1997.
Timor-Leste is the only country in Southeast Asia that is still outside the regional bloc.
The former Portuguese colony, one of the poorest countries in the world, has high levels of unemployment and has suffered bouts of political instability and violence since its independence.
Its GDP per capita was about US$1,400 in 2021, slightly higher than Myanmar's, whose economy had stalled after a 2021 coup.
President Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Laureate who was re-elected in April 2022, has campaigned for ASEAN membership since his first term in government from 2007 to 2012.
While some ASEAN countries had supported its membership, it needed the assent of all 10 current member nations to join the association.
Other members, including Singapore, had earlier expressed reservations about the country's lack of development.
Timor-Leste will have to meet the criteria that ASEAN will map out to gain full membership.
Cambodia, this year's ASEAN chair, has voiced its support for Timor-Leste to join the bloc.
And Indonesia - which takes over the ASEAN chair from Cambodia in 2023 - has long supported its bid for membership.
The Timor-Leste government said in a press statement on Friday that it welcomes ASEAN's decision, appealing for full membership by next year.
"We request the ASEAN member states to grant full membership to Timor-Leste in 2023 following eleven years of preparation and the adoption of the roadmap and report to the 42nd ASEAN Summit," said the statement.