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Friday, December 18, 2009

Cambodia in tight spot over Uighurs

Twenty-two minority Chinese Uighurs who fled to Cambodia after deadly ethnic rioting this year pose a diplomatic challenge for Cambodia, testing its ability to stand up to China, its biggest investor.

The Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group involved in rioting in western China that killed nearly 200 people in July, have put Cambodia’s leaders in an awkward position ahead of a visit by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who arrives on Sunday.

Cambodia is one of two Southeast Asian countries that signed a 1951 convention on refugees pledging not to send asylum seekers back to a country where they will face persecution, which would almost certainly be the case for the Uighurs, according to rights groups.

They were smuggled out of China into Cambodia in recent weeks and applied for asylum at the UN refugee agency office in Phnom Penh.

China has not said publicly it is seeking their repatriation, but Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters this week they were criminal suspects who were being investigated.

The timing is tricky for Cambodia, expected to sign 14 agreements with China during Xi’s visit related to infrastructure construction, grants and loans. Cambodia has already received more than $1bn in foreign direct investment from China, which in October agreed to provide $853mn in loans to the impoverished country for dams, infrastructure and irrigation projects. Reuters

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