Leader Talks: Timor-Leste Ambassador to Cambodia H.E. Kupa Lopes on learning from Cambodia’s economic development journey

Gareth Johnson

Timor-Leste Ambassador to Cambodia H.E. Kupa Lopes, spoke with CIR Leader Talks about being the requirements to becoming ASEAN’s 11th member, improving bilateral trade between Cambodia and Timor-Leste and the learnings from the Kingdom’s own 20+ year economic journey since becoming a member in 1999.

ASEAN membership has been a long-term ambition for Timor-Leste. The nation of just over 1.3 million people and annual GDP of $3.6 billion received an “in principal” approval last year announced as Cambodia hosted its summit.

Read more: Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta seeks to improve trade ties with Cambodia

Kupa Lopes, Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia and Cambodia Investment Review reporter Gareth Johnson.

“We are all but the 11th member of ASEAN now with much thanks to Cambodia and its Prime Minister Hun Sen we have now been accepted as members, the only thing we cannot do right now is vote,” H.E. Kupa Lopes told CIR Leader Talks at his embassy in downtown Phnom Penh.

However, there are still more hurdles to overcome before it becomes official, such as having an embassy in every ASEAN member as well as the ability to attend every meeting of the block, which can be up to 200 per year, with the ambassador starting: “While we have meet almost all criteria, which is something we have been working on for 20 years we now need to expand our civil service to meet our ongoing obligations.”

Training consular staff, a top priority

With H.E. Kupa Lopes also commented that the nation needed to recruit up to 2,000 personal, who as well as needing to be proficient in English also needed training in the field, something they were actively seeking Cambodian help for.

“We need to train around 2,000 Timor-Leste citizens to attend, or host ASEAN events. With Cambodia being so helpful in our membership bid we will be again asking their help to train these individuals. Now it will be at a government-to-government level, but we envisage utilizing the Cambodian private sector as things grow,” he added.

Cambodia and Timor-Leste host bilateral discussions in Phnom Penh.

However, things are likely to improve particularly following an official state visit of Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos-Horta to the Kingdom in October of 2022, with key agreements being signed regarding air travel, as well as rice exports to name a few.

Read more: Bilateral investment in tourism featured at first Cambodia and Timor-Leste Business Forum

According to the H.E. Kupa Lopes rice imports from Cambodia to Timor-Leste would start soon stating: “We plan to import around 10-15 tons of rice from Cambodia, which will make it the main country we import the crop from”.

Improving trade and connectivity

Another key sector that has been agreed was with regards to aviation, with flights between the two states being still very much in the planning stages, although as of now it still needs to be signed off by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Read more: Timor-Leste and Cambodia seek more bilateral foreign direct investment

This was though a mere formality with H.E. Kupa Lopes adding: “We want weekly flights, but of course it will depend on demand. Currently we are exploring flights that would go via Shanghai, or Guangzhou, making it much easier for Chinese, or Cambodian citizens to transit”.

Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta and Cambodia Investment Review reporter Gareth Johnson during a state visit in Phnom Penh.

Aside from the deals that had already been agreed upon Timor-Leste was also still actively looking for foreign direct investment from Cambodia in various sectors, such as hospitality and the garment industry.

“As ASEAN members we need to be able to host events, which will mean needing more hotels, as well as hospitality staff. This is an area where the Cambodian private sector can help with the development of Timor-Leste,” H.E. Kupa Lopes reflected.

Learning from Cambodia’s own economic development

One of Cambodia’s long-term economic pillars, its garment sector was another area where Timor-Leste not only wanted to learn from Cambodia, but also offered opportunities for companies within the Kingdom, with H.E. Kupa Lopes stating: “Manufacturing is an area where we can learn from Cambodia. We similarly have a young, educated population, so want to prioritize this and of course Cambodia can help with this”.

A little-known Timor-Leste born success story is the popular Cambodian minimart Smile, which originally started in Timor-Leste, before closing due to the civil strife within the country at the time and moving to Cambodia.

Ambassador of East-Timor to Cambodia
H.E. Kupa Lopes, Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia.

During the Presidential visit to Cambodia the Smile owner got a chance to meet President Horta with the net result being the company now planning on reopening stores in Timor-Leste “soon” according to the ambassador.

Read more: Timor-Leste keen to follow Cambodia’s lead in developing export industry

The meeting was summarized with H.E. Kupa Lopes stating that not only were bilateral ties stronger than they had ever been, but quite simply that now was the time to seize the new business opportunities on offer.

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