The news this week that Cambodia would deport a group of Uighurs who had fled China and turned up in Phnom Penh, via an underground railroad route normally used by Koreans fleeing North Korea, sparked two different types of reactions.
Most human rights groups, understandably, criticized Cambodia’s decision – Amnesty warned that the Uighurs could be tortured when they returned to China, while the UN complained that its staff in country could not see the Uighurs in time to prevent deportation. (China claimed that the Uighurs were “criminals” who should be sent back; the Uighurs argued that they had fled after the Xinjiang riots last summer and would be endangered if they returned.) Other observers commented on how the deportation reflects China’s rising power in Southeast Asia – and particularly in Cambodia. Ten years ago, most Southeast Asian nations would not have acceded – at least not so quickly – to this kind of pressure from China. Now, it was almost assumed among most of my SE Asian diplomat friends – and even many Uighur activists – that these Uighurs probably would be sent back.
China certainly wields enormous influence in Cambodia. It’s the largest aid donor and one of the biggest investors. But it’s a two-way street: China’s rise has proved much of a boon for Cambodia itself. China gives Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen an alternative to relying on Western powers; if Hun Sen does not want to accede to Western demands, now he can always turn to China. The prime minister clearly relishes this geopolitical shift – he seems to take every opportunity to remind Western nations they no longer can control him. China’s influence, in this case, also provides Hun Sen, who has no love for the UN, a chance to thumb his nose at Turtle Bay. (Hun Sen has some reason to dislike the UN: After all, he remembers when the UN sat an opposition alliance that included the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia.) As the Uighur situation shows, Hun Sen rarely passes up such opportunities to make life difficult for the UN. In the run-up to the Khmer Rouge tribunal, he seemed to spend as much time blasting the UN as he did actually facilitating the tribunal.