As multinational peacekeeping exercises concluded last week in Kompong Speu province, lawmakers in Washington threatened to suspend similar military cooperation in the future as a penalty for the government’s sudden deportation of ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China last year.
A draft measure approved Thursday by the full Senate Appropriations Committee, a body of lawmakers that approves government spending, would suspend all funding in 2011 for multinational peacekeeping operations here unless Cambodian authorities provide the US government with “credible information on the whereabouts and welfare” of the 20 Uighur asylum seekers deported in December.
Whatever its practical effect, the draft provision, which must still be approved by the US Senate as a whole, was a sign that anger in Washington about the Uighur deportations has not subsided in the seven months since they occurred.
A different draft law in May was also introduced into the lower chamber of the US legislature threatening to deny reduced trade tariffs on Cambodian garments as a result of the deportations.
Over the objections of the UN refugee agency, the asylum seekers, including two children under 2 years of age, were deported to China in connection with the violence between Uighurs and members of the Han ethnic majority last year in the northwest Xinjiang region, which left almost 200 people dead.
The deportations, which occurred before the Uighurs’ claims for asylum could be processed, provoked international outrage, and the US has already withheld a consignment of 200 military trucks to show its displeasure. The vehicles were replaced by China in June.
The Foreign Ministry yesterday renewed its defense of the deportations as the strict application of Cambodian law and said the government did not know where the refugees were.
It was unclear yesterday what practical effect the draft law could have. Yearly exercises as part of a US-sponsored multinational peacekeeping concluded Friday, and a Defense Ministry spokesman said he was unaware of plans to hold additional US-sponsored peacekeeping training next year.
However the author of the new Uighur provision, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from the US state of Vermont and the chairman of the subcommittee on foreign operations, believed draft legislation was an opportunity to send a message to Cambodian authorities.
The draft provision “is intended to convey to [Prime Minister] Hun Sen the serious concerns of US senators with the forced deportation of the Uighurs, which was apparently done as a favor to the Chinese government but may have resulted in the imprisonment, mistreatment or death of these refugees. Senator Leahy and other senators want to know what happened to these people,” Mr Leahy’s office said in response to questions submitted by e-mail.
“Hun Sen cannot count on the support of the US government if he violates basic principles of international refugee law. It is important for the US to defend the rights of refugees, wherever they are.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy said yesterday that the deportees would be treated according to Chinese law, but declined to comment further. The Chinese Foreign Ministry suggested in February that the Uighurs had been or would be tried in court.
In November, before the deportations, Chinese authorities announced that they had executed nine Uighurs because of the violence in Xinjiang last year.
Koy Kuong, foreign ministry spokesman, said yesterday that Cambodia did not know what had become of the deported Uighurs.
“Right now, they are under Chinese sovereignty. It is not a Cambodian affair,” he said.
“The United States of America is a sovereign state and the United States of America has the right to implement their foreign policy,” he added. “Cambodia, too. We have the right to implement our laws and policies.”
Mr Kuong declined to answer when asked who had determined that the Uighur deportees were “illegal immigrants,” and not refugees, and why this finding could not be challenged in court.
“When they come illegally, we send them back,” he said.
Sophie Richardson, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, said yesterday that the reactions of US lawmakers were understandable.
“By forcibly repatriating Uighur asylum seekers without recognizing their claims to protection, Cambodia flagrantly violated its obligations under the refugee convention. This was all the more deplorable given how many Cambodians have been given protection as refugees over the years,” Ms Richardson wrote in an e-mail.
“We know virtually nothing about what’s happened to the 20 who got sent back to China, but given both the history and more recent developments in Xinjiang, including an incredibly harsh sentence given to a Uighur blogger last week despite his being publicly supportive of the government, we have reason to be gravely concerned,” she wrote.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)