Cambodia 2009: Khmer Rouge and expelling asylum seekers… for a price

2009 will be remembered in Cambodia as the year of the first Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Duch (born Kang Kek Lew), head of the torture center S-21 during the Khmer Rouge was put on trial, causing considerable consternation for some, and some small measure of consolation for many who lived through that era (1975-79). This soul-searching, however, seems to have had little effect on the Cambodian government, as was recently shown by Cambodia’s expulsion of Uighur asylum seekers in exchange for foreign investment from China. (More background here.) Twenty Uighurs had sought asylum in Cambodia following China’s crackdown following the unrest in western China this past July. For those of you who don’t know, the Uighurs are a Turkic Muslim minority in China, and have in the past few years resisted aspects of Beijing’s development strategy of the Xinjiang Uighur Autnomous Region (which, of course, is not really autonomous), involving encouraging Han Chinese from the East to “go west.” Incidently, Xiinjiang’s Governor, the architect of the repression of protests this summer, had a similar job before this one: head of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Why did the Uighurs go to Cambodia? If you look on a map of Asia, it’d be hard from them to go farther and remain on the mainland. Well, Cambodia is one of only a very few countries in the region to have signed UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The others in East Asia are Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and… China. (Central Asia has a few signatories, though I might think twice before applying for asylum in Kazakhstan; South Asia, surprisingly to me, has none.) During the Khmer Rouge millions fled Cambodia to neighboring states as refugees (neighboring states that were not particularly welcoming), and many sought asylum around the world. So it makes sense that if any country in the Asia were going to be sensitive to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers it would be Cambodia. And there are, therefore, asylum seekers from around the world who have successfully sought asylum in Cambodia.

But China is the biggest investor in Cambodia, and therefore has a voice in Cambodian affairs. The Chinese are calling the twenty Uighurs criminals (of course, in a country that doesn’t allow protest, protestors are criminals), so Cambodia calls them “illegal aliens,” and expels them. Two days after the expulsion, Cambodia signed a deal with China for $850 million.

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