By Sebastian Strangio
(CAAI News Media)
PHNOM PENH - A day after Cambodian authorities spirited 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers out of the country on an unmarked charter flight, China's Vice President Xi Jinping touched down at Siem Reap International Airport. During his three-day visit in late December, the Chinese leader signed an unprecedented US$1.2 billion in economic aid agreements with the Phnom Penh government, while rights groups and Western governments howled condemnation over the sudden deportations.
The deported Uighurs hailed from China's restive northwest Xinjiang province and were part of a group of 22 who had drifted into Cambodia with the aid of Christian missionary networks in November after braving the long and arduous overland journey from China. Uighur rights groups said that the group fled China after witnessing bloody clashes between Chinese security forces and Uighur demonstrators on July 5 in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. Two of the group remain on the run.
A Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Koy Kuong, said that the Uighurs - who had applied for political asylum through the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - were deported for breaching Cambodia's immigration laws. "We have not specifically targeted these people - we do this in general for all foreign nationals who enter Cambodia illegally," he said at the time.
Despite the Cambodian denials, the nature and timing of the seemingly hurried deportations are a vivid illustration of the new bonds of patronage and political accommodation now linking Beijing and Phnom Penh. In recent years, China's global sales pitch - hefty amounts of economic aid disentangled from human rights or good governance conditions - has found a willing recipient in Phnom Penh.
"China respects the political decisions of Cambodia," said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in September, during a ceremony marking the construction of a $128 million Chinese-funded bridge. "[T]hey build bridges and roads and there are no complicated conditions," he added.
The newly promised $1.2 billion in economic assistance comes in addition to the $880 million in loans and grants Cambodia has received from Beijing since 2006, including finance for the $280 million Kamchay hydropower dam in Kampot province and the monolithic $30 million Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh, given as a "gift" from the Chinese government.
The arrival of the Uighurs was an unprecedented test for Hun Sen's regime, forcing it to choose between acquiescing to the apparent demands of its top regional patron and its conflicting obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. To some international observers, China's intent to secure the deportation of the Uighurs from Cambodia was clear from the outset.
"China takes a very hard line on Uighurs who seek out shelter in other countries, as China does not admit that there are conditions in Xinjiang, where most Uighurs live, that can be oppressive and might cause Uighurs to flee the country," said Josh Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington.
The Uighur American Association, a US-based Uighur exile group, claims that in late 2001 and early 2002, Nepal forcibly returned at least two Uighurs to Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, one of whom was executed in 2003 despite having registered with the UNHCR office in Kathmandu. Kurlantzick said the Chinese government has pushed hard to have Uighurs sent back to China from Central Asia and protested aggressively against the transfer of Uighurs held by the US government at Guantanamo Bay to third countries.
That includes a strong Chinese Foreign Ministry statement issued on Friday warning Switzerland against accepting Uighur detainees that Beijing says it considers terrorists and a threat to its national security.
Rights activists and UNHCR officials have demonstrated increasing faith in Cambodia's willingness to abide by the Refugee Convention's protocols in processing asylum cases. In an article published by UNHCR in October 2008, Cambodia was hailed as an emerging "refugee model" for Southeast Asia.
The article followed the signing of an agreement between UNHCR and the Cambodian government that month that began the transfer of all asylum cases - except ethnic Montagnards from Vietnam - to a new Cambodian Refugee Office housed at the Department of Immigration. The article described the change of location as "an important move - symbolic of this country's determination to take on new responsibilities in protecting refugees' human rights".
The transfer of powers was completed by a government sub-decree signed by Hun Sen on December 17 - just two days before the Uighurs' deportation. Rights activists familiar with the case said that on the previous day, UNHCR vehicles were used to round up the 20 Uighurs and take them to a safe house under joint government-UNHCR administration. On the night of December 18, the Uighurs were then allegedly forced at gunpoint to board Cambodian police vehicles and flown out the following night to an unknown destination in China.
Andrew Swan, a project coordinator at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, described the deportation as a "bolt from the blue" that reversed an earlier apparent willingness to process fairly the Uighur asylum cases. "Prior to the extradition ... there were few indications that the Cambodian government would interfere in the cases of the 22 Uighurs," he said. "Our confidence has been proved tragically wrong, and I believe it will take many, many years for Cambodia to regain both its regional and its international stature."
Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), which was involved with the Uighur cases, said she was "shocked" at the Cambodian government's actions after formally requesting UNHCR assistance to determine the status of the Uighur group and offering to provide a safe house while their applications were pending. "Like sheep going to the slaughter, the people went to the safe house clearly believing they were going to be protected," she said.
The deportation also prompted a storm of diplomatic condemnation. A statement issued by acting US State Department spokesman Gordon Daguid on December 21 said the US "strongly opposed" the deportation, warning it would "affect Cambodia's relationship with the US and its international standing". Graham Watson, a British member of the European Parliament, issued a statement on January 7 decrying the deportation and calling for a fair accounting of the two Uighurs remaining in the country.
"Cambodia's sneaky decision to extradite 20 Uighurs to China is a disgrace," he said in the statement. "The Cambodian government should give a proper account of why it chose to act in this way."
Yet it was perhaps unsurprising that Beijing's $1.2 billion economic aid carrot would trump Cambodia's loose legal obligations under the Refugee Convention. Meanwhile, criticism has also been directed at UNHCR's Cambodia-based office for putting so much trust in the government's claims.
Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was "astonishingly poor timing and a gross error in judgment" for the UNHCR to hand control of refugee-processing - and the Uighur cases in particular - to the Cambodian government. "The bottom line is that Cambodia flagrantly violated its obligations under the Refugee Convention, which ended tragically for the 20 Uighurs," she said.
Following the deportation, Cambodian officials also vented their frustration at the UNHCR for putting them in a compromised position with the Uighurs. They openly derided UNHCR officials for dragging their feet in processing the asylum applications.
"[The] UNHCR is the laziest office in Cambodia," said government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith on December 21. "If they [granted refugee status] within a few days, those people would have been moved to other places, but they were slow and kept them for about a month." He also accused the agency of leaking the story to the press in order to "beat a drum" against the government, forcing it to begin investigations into the whereabouts of the 22 asylum seekers.
Kitty McKinsey, the UNCHR's spokesperson in Asia, said that despite the "aberration" of the deportations, which she claims the UNHCR took extraordinary steps to prevent, the essence of the problem is that only states have the power to provide protection to asylum seekers. "We work very diligently and sincerely to assist the government and provide protection, but if a state has signed the Refugee Convention, it's up to the state itself to provide protection," she said.
Sebastian Strangio is a reporter at the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia.