Just more than a year ago, Cambodia was praised by the United Nations for its work on behalf of refugees. It was one of only two nations in Southeast Asia to sign the 1951 international convention on refugees, and it opened a brand new office that seemed to suggest a new determination to protect refugees’ human rights.
That was then. Today, Cambodia has baldly violated its international commitments and put at risk the lives of 20 members of the Uighur minority — including two infants — who were forcibly deported back to China on Friday.
Poor, weak Cambodia is not the only villain in this piece. China shoulders even more blame for misusing its growing wealth and clout to force Cambodia to do its bidding. Already Cambodia’s largest foreign investor, China rewarded Cambodia on Monday with 14 deals, valued at an estimated $850 million, including help in building roads and repairing Buddhist temples.
The Uighurs, members of a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority who say the Chinese government discriminates against them, entered Cambodia about a month ago with the aid of Christian missionaries and asked for asylum. China has been cracking down on the Uighurs since the ethnic unrest in July, the worst in decades.
Beijing said that at least 197 people — mostly majority Han Chinese — were killed in that violence. Han Chinese retaliated and hundreds of Uighurs have since been detained. Several of the fugitive Uighurs told the United Nations in written statements that they had been involved in the unrest and feared lengthy jail terms or even the death penalty if they were returned to China.
Chinese authorities claimed the Uighurs were criminals but offered no proof. Such charges are often a specious excuse of repressive societies, but in any case the Uighurs had protected status while their asylum cases were being investigated by the United Nations’ refugee agency. China and Cambodia had a responsibility under international law to allow that process to be completed.
It is alarming that the United States, Europe and United Nations, despite making an effort, could not figure out a way to persuade Cambodia to do the right thing. They should make sure Cambodia pays a price for its behavior, but the focus must be on China, starting with an urgent demand for access to the 20 Uighurs to ensure that they are not mistreated. No Chinese refugee can feel safe if China is allowed to bully other countries into forcing them back to an uncertain and unjust future.