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EDITORIAL

Cambodia's deportation of Uighurs is blatant hypocrisy

After refusing to extradite a wanted fugitive back to Thailand, Hun Sen gladly sends asylum seekers back to China to face trial



Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was quick to send back a group of 20 Uighur asylum seekers who have been staying in Cambodia waiting for the approval of the UN High Commission for Refugees. The Cambodian authorities said that they entered the country illegally, so they had to be deported back to China according to domestic laws. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union as well as international humanitarian organisations have urged the Cambodian government not to do so. Unfortunately, their plea fell on deaf ears - Hun Sen's.

It is hoped that Thailand will not embrace the selfishness and short-sightedness of Phnom Penh when it comes to the handling of Lao Hmong refugees. Many have been given the UN's People of Concern (POC) status because it is feared the Vientiane government will prosecute them if they are returned. Moreover, said one senior American official, there is growing concern in the US about the issue of forced repatriation of Lao Hmong refugees by the Thai government.

The US is also inquiring about 4,200 Lao Hmong in Petchabun living under the watchful eye of the military-run Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc), as well as 158 Hmong in Nong Khai with POC status,

It would be a grave mistake for Thailand to forcibly repatriate people who merit protection. If not for the sake of human rights, Thailand needs to think about its standing in the international community.

Besides the moral aspect of the decision, Thailand should also take into consideration the long history of working relations with the US over refugee issues. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the past few decades to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees who have come through Thailand to resettle in the US. This should count for something.

The government has been sending out conflicting signals when it comes to the issue of Hmong refugees. But the international community can do its part, too, by stating clearly how many Hmong refugees they are willing to receive. A clearer policy could help move the issue towards some sort of solution.

China, on the other hand, has handed down 17 death sentences to Uighurs for their role in the July violence in the far-western Xinjiang province between local Uighurs and migrant Han Chinese. Some countries including the US have refused to send back Uighurs released from Guantanamo Bay detention camp for fear that they will suffer similar retribution.

The controversial decision by Hun Sen came ahead of the visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jin-ping to Phnom Penh on Monday. The two countries signed 14 bilateral agreements worth more than US$1.2 billion (Bt40 billion) in aid and loans to Cambodia. In the past decade, China has emerged as Cambodia's largest donor. In the past, Cambodia relied on a consortium of assistance from the international community, which imposed very strict conditions. Beijing's aid has no strings attached.

In less than a decade, Beijing has been able to turn the anti-Chinese and anti-Khmer Rouge Phnom Penh government into a close friend, after nearly two decades of adversarial relations. Hun Sen has been behind the U-turn, switching to China after reducing investment from Taiwan, which was present in Cambodia in the early 1990s.

These days, Chinese entrepreneurs and all things Chinese are common sights throughout Cambodia. The Chinese language is a popular choice among students. In the past few years, China has provided hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assistance to the once war-torn country.

Cambodia has been able to use the Chinese presence as a counter to the Vietnamese dominance that prevailed after the Vietnamese army ousted the Khmer Rouge and occupied Cambodia in 1979. But China had close relations with Cambodia under the former King Norodom Sihanouk, who now resides in Beijing. Under the king, the country maintained a policy of strict neutrality.

Relations between Cambodia and China have increasingly become closer and more strategic, with major investments pouring in from state-run Chinese companies in Cambodian real estate and arable land. More than 50,000 Chinese currently live in Phnom Penh and other parts of the country, and that figure is only likely to increase.



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