The Cable

U.S. official: Engagement of Burmese junta failing to bring results

The State Department has been relatively quiet in public about Cambodia’s decision last December to send 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China to face who-knows-what, but behind the scenes, senior State Department leaders are taking the issue very seriously. A State Department official tells The Cable that just before the Cambodian government sent the ...

The State Department has been relatively quiet in public about Cambodia’s decision last December to send 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China to face who-knows-what, but behind the scenes, senior State Department leaders are taking the issue very seriously.

A State Department official tells The Cable that just before the Cambodian government sent the ethnic Uighurs back to China, where they face imprisonment or worse, there were a flurry of diplomatic efforts to try to convince the Cambodians to hold off. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even phoned Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to urge him to rethink the decision, the official said, but to no avail.

Scott Marciel, the deputy assistant secretary of state and ambassador for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) spoke about the seriousness of Cambodia’s deportation of the Uighurs at a conference Thursday put on by the East-West Center.

"The Cambodian government’s decision to deport them before they had been evaluated was very troubling," he said, confirming that U.S. officials "weighed in very heavily at very senior levels."

The failure of the Cambodians to even try to evaluate the refugee status of the Uighurs sets a dangerous precedent, said Marciel, who added that U.S. efforts to work with Cambodia on a host of other issues continue.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced Thursday that the United States did suspend the sale of some 200 trucks and trailers to Cambodia as a protest against the move, but that’s about all the punishment the U.S. plans to dole out.

"Half of the people are mad that you did too much and half are mad that you didn’t do enough," said Marciel. "That comes with the territory."

Cambodia has shrugged off that punishment. Maybe it wasn’t as important to them as the $1.2 billion in aid a Chinese official delivered to Phnom Phen only days after the deportation.

Reuters reported that the Uighurs were smuggled into Cambodia sometime in weeks prior to their deportation and applied for asylum at the United Nations refugee agency office in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian government deported them for breaking immigration laws.

The U.N. Refugee Agency immediately condemned the decision, saying that "The forced return of asylum-seekers without a full examination of their asylum claims is a serious breach of international refugee law."

Marciel also acknowledged that the State Department’s new policy on mixing pressure with engagement in Burma has yet to show concrete results in persuading the brutal Burmese junta to govern more responsibly.

"Burma’s new election laws are a step backwards," he said. "They are effectively preventing the main opposition party from participating. This is the opposite of the path towards national reconciliation."

Regarding the new U.S. engagement of the junta, he said, "We predicted it would be a long and difficult process, and unfortunately we were right."

Overall, ASEAN has seen a flurry of U.S. attention since President Obama took office, reversing a pattern from the Bush administration years in which the countries there viewed U.S. interest in Southeast Asia as focused on terrorism, terrorism, and terrorism.

Clinton has traveled to the region three times; President Obama met with all 10 ASEAN heads of state in Singapore for the first time ever; and he will travel to Indonesia, hopefully in June.

"2009 was a banner year for U.S. relations with Southeast Asia and ASEAN," Marciel said. "The fact is we hadn’t been engaged in this region for a very long time."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola