PHNOM PENH – It was as a budding diplomat in the 1970s that Mr Jose Ramos-Horta, a man who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for his fight for East Timor’s independence, first raised the idea of his country joining South-east Asia’s economic and political bloc.

Almost half a century later, his vision appears set to be realised, with ASEAN announcing on Friday that it has agreed in principle to admit East Timor, officially known as Timor-Leste, as the group’s 11th member.

Mr Ramos-Horta, 72, who left retirement this year to clinch the country’s presidency for a second time, told Reuters that the dream has been long-held.

“The very first time I talked about this, I was only 24 or 25,” he said by telephone from the capital Dili.

“I went to Jakarta and met with then Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik, and I had zero diplomatic experience, but I knew that regional integration, a membership in ASEAN, and a close relationship with Australia and Indonesia was very important to the future of Timor-Leste,” he said.

At the time, Timor-Leste was ruled by Portugal, although it was clear that Lisbon would soon relinquish its colony. Timor-Leste was later annexed by Indonesia and gained full independence only in 2002.

At a summit in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh this week, ASEAN said Timor-Leste would be granted observer status at high-level meetings of the bloc as it formulates a “road map for full membership”.

Mr Ramos-Horta, the once-aspiring diplomat, is now one of Timor-Leste’s best known political figures.

He spent decades as the exiled spokesman for East Timorese guerrilla fighters when the country was fighting against the Indonesian occupation, a struggle for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996.

He served as the country’s first foreign minister, prime minister from 2006 to 2007, and president from 2007 to 2012, during which time he survived an assassination attempt by rebel soldiers.

Mr Ramos-Horta said becoming a fully fledged ASEAN member would “not happen tomorrow” and could still take several years, but would ultimately benefit his young nation.

Timor-Leste celebrated 20 years of independence this year, but the country of 1.3 million people is heavily dependent on dwindling reserves of oil and gas. It has struggled for years with bouts of instability, political regeneration and the challenge of diversifying its economy.

ASEAN membership would open up his country to wider diplomatic relations with the bloc’s dialogue partners, greater opportunities for foreign direct investment and provide Timorese with better education and employment opportunities, Mr Ramos-Horta said.

“There will be more facilities for Timorese to travel across ASEAN to study and work,” he said. “And there will be a lot of pressure on Timorese elites, our own government, to work, to deliver because it does not only come with rights and privileges, but also a lot of burden of responsibility.” REUTERS