Human rights workers fear the group face prison or execution in China, where nine Uighurs have been to death over July protests. Some say China’s aid to the poor nation played a role in the decision. (IRIN)

By Brendan Brady

Phnom Penh, Cambodia — Two days after Cambodia repatriated 20 Uighur asylum-seekers fleeing China, the two countries signed trade agreements worth more than $1 billion, bringing significant investment, loans and grants to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation. Both countries deny a deal was struck, but China’s growing ability to leverage its economic power in the region combined with Cambodia’s weak rule of law have observers believing otherwise.

China insisted the Uighurs were outlaws, saying they participated in deadly protests earlier this year, while Cambodia contended it was merely following its immigration laws by deporting them. Rights advocates, however, said the refugees fled China after witnessing police violence against other members of their ethnic group.

Uighurs are a Turkic, Sunni Muslim minority native to China’s far-western Xinjiang province. Xinjiang has been buffeted by bombings, attacks and riots in recent years that Beijing has blamed on Uighur separatists demanding autonomy. Violent confrontations erupted in July between Uighurs and Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, whose increased migration to the region has heightened ethnic tensions. Nearly 200 people were killed and another 1,600 wounded, according to media reports.

Rights groups anticipate that the Uighurs deported from Cambodia are unlikely to get a fair trial in China and face torture, lengthy prison sentences or even the death penalty. Seventeen Uighurs have already been condemned to death for their role in the protests.

The deportation coincided with a visit to Cambodia by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who signed 14 pacts worth $1.2 billion related to infrastructure, construction, grants and loans. China has become Cambodia’s leading foreign investor and one of the country’s leading donors, stepping up its presence with projects for roads, dams, mines, irrigation and telecommunications. Cambodia’s recent offshore oil prospects have made it an even more enticing trade partner.

Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Brittis Edman, said the Uighurs were traded as a “commodity” and that the move was an ominous sign of Cambodia’s attitude towards refugee protection. Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia expert at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington and author of “Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World,” said that in exchange for its investment, China wants Cambodia to support its stance on its most sensitive diplomatic issues — including Taiwan, Tibet and dissenting minorities like the Uighurs.

While analysts were interpreting the deportation as a sign of China’s growing diplomatic audacity, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was left picking up the pieces of Cambodia’s failed refugee program. “It’s a grave breach of Cambodia’s obligations,” said Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Asia. “As a signatory of the 1951 convention, Cambodia was obligated to commit to non-refoulement, which means no refugees should be returned to face persecution.” McKinsey said the UNHCR took extraordinary efforts to intervene in Cambodia’s decision, having its top official, Antonio Gutierrez, attempt to speak with Prime Minister Hun Sen directly and offering to evacuate the Uighurs to a third country.

But local observers wonder if the UNHCR lost the leverage it needed to manage such a politically laden case by divesting itself of authority in recent years. The Uighurs — who had been in Cambodia a few weeks before news of their arrival surfaced through media reports — had first sought asylum through the UNHCR. But the agency has phased down its role in handling asylum applications. Cambodia is one of just two Southeast Asian signatories of the 1951 international Refugee Convention, and for the past two years, it has been the focus of the UNHCR’s effort to create a locally managed refugee office to serve as a model for the region.

In a press release from October 2008 titled “Cambodia on track to become refugee model for Southeast Asia,” UNHCR’s then-representative in Cambodia, Thamrongsak Meechubot, was quoted as praising Cambodia’s progress. “Things are moving since the government agreed in June that it was prepared to take responsibility for refugee status determination itself,” he said.

But there were signs that Cambodia wasn’t ready, and diplomats in Phnom Penh privately expressed reservations to the UNHCR about its faith in a government that had in the past directly deported, or been implicated in the covert extradition of, Chinese and Vietnamese nationals fleeing persecution. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, the government has even aided and abetted the Vietnamese government in keeping tabs on political refugees who have fled to Cambodia.

After the deportation, the government highlighted its own compromised position by criticizing the UNHCR for not taking control of the case and evacuating the Uighurs to a third country. “We wanted to deal with it quietly without harming our relationship with China,” said Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who added that Western diplomats and rights workers put Cambodia in an impossible position with China by leaking news about the Uighurs presence to the press. Just a day after the Uighurs were rounded up by police, the government pushed through a bill giving it complete control over asylum applications in the future. The takeover had been in the pipeline, but the timing raised eyebrows.

“The whole system failed,” said Sara Colm, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Cambodia. “UNHCR wanted to turn over the refugee process here to the government . . . and now, as a result, you have 20 people who risk losing their lives.”

[Published by World Politics Review on June 4, 2010]