Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cambodia and China cooperate in politics and business, despite critics

Two days after Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers to China over the strong objections of Western nations, the two countries signed a package of 14 development deals worth more than $1 billion. Although both sides denied a trade-off, the timing was interesting. The deals on Monday were the latest in a growing network of aid, trade and investment that has increased China’s influence in Cambodia as it promotes its ‘‘soft power’’ of political and economic influence in Southeast Asia. It has become Cambodia’s leading foreign investor and one of its leading aid donors.

By ignoring the protests of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and several human rights groups, ‘‘Cambodia has sent a message very loud and clear that it is looking eastward,’’ said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, one of the groups that protested the repatriation. The chief government spokesman in Cambodia, Khieu Kanharith, dismissed objections to the deportation, saying Cambodia was simply following immigration laws. By contrast, during two recent visits, Cambodia refused demands by Thailand to extradite its fugitive former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been convicted of corruption and abuse of power and faces a jail term back home.

Human rights groups, and the asylum seekers themselves, said the Uighurs faced likely persecution on their return to China.

‘‘This deportation is all the more disturbing in a country that has known massive persecution during the wars and the Khmer Rouge regime, and which knows all too well the price and value of refugee protection,’’ said Christophe Peschoux, the Cambodia representative of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In Beijing on Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said there was no connection between the deportation and the development package. ‘‘According to my knowledge, some are suspected of criminal cases,’’ she said. ‘‘Public security forces will handle the relevant outlaws.’’

In its worldwide hunt for natural resources, and with the possibility of access to a deep water port in southern Cambodia, China has increased influence there with projects for roads, dams, mines, irrigation and telecommunications. The latest development deals were signed during a visit by Vice Prime Minister Xi Jinping of China, who also inaugurated a gigantic Chinese- built headquarters for the government’s Council of Ministers in the capital, Phnom Penh. China has been building major government offices around the region, from East Timor to Papua New Guinea. ‘‘It can be said that Sino-Cambodian relations are a model of friendly cooperation,’’ the Cambodian Foreign Ministry quoted Mr. Xi as saying.

Before coming to Cambodia, Mr. Xi had met in Myanmar with the leader of the ruling junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. During his visit, China signed a deal to build and operate a 1,240-kilometer, or 770-mile, pipeline designed to bring crude oil from western Myanmar to southern China. Ms. Jiang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said that the aid package to Cambodia had come with ‘‘no strings attached.’’

It is precisely this freedom from caveats — like standards of good governance and environmental safety demanded by Western donors — that makes Chinese assistance so attractive to Cambodia. ‘‘China talks less but does a lot,’’ Prime Minister Hun Sen said in 2006 at a groundbreaking ceremony for two Chinese-financed bridges. ‘‘There are no conditions. We talk back and forth directly.’’

He noted that China had just signed a contract with Cambodia for about $600 million, almost exactly the same amount pledged earlier by Western donors through the World Bank. By contrast with those donors, Mr. Hun Sen said, China ‘‘didn’t need to announce ‘If you amend this or do this, I will give you the money.’ China doesn’t do that.’’

The Uighurs, members of a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority living mostly in western China, said they were fleeing a crackdown that followed riots in July in which the Chinese government said at least 197 people were killed. Hundreds of Uighurs have been detained since then, and several people have been executed for involvement in the rioting in the western region of Xinjiang. At least 43 Uighur men have disappeared, according to Human Rights Watch.

It was not the first time Cambodia has bent to Chinese demands for the return of its citizens. In 2002, the government handed over two practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that is banned in China. Twenty-two Uighurs entered Cambodia about a month ago, helped by a Christian group that has helped North Koreans fleeing their country. Two of the Uighurs have disappeared, the Cambodian government said. By Seth Mydans International Herald Tribune

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