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Govt unconcerned about US retaliation

CAMBODIAN officials have shrugged off a US decision to withhold a shipment of military lorries in retaliation for the government’s controversial deportation of 20 ethnic Uighurs to China in December.

In a press briefing in Washington on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley said the US was cancelling a shipment of 200 lorries and trailers under the US Excess Defence Articles (EDA) programme, through which the US provides surplus military supplies to other countries.

“They failed to heed not only our call that they step up to their international obligations but specific obligations they have as a country,” he said. “We
said there would be consequences, and this is a step in that direction.”

Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Friday that Cambodia was unconcerned about the cancellation of the shipment.

“We would thank [the US] if they continue to grant military aid to Cambodia,” he said, but he added that the government “cannot accept the US government putting blame on Cambodia and suspending military aid because of the matter of the Uighurs”.

He repeated earlier statements contending that the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) failed to process the Uighurs in the month after they arrived, adding that once their presence was leaked to the media the government had no choice but to acquiesce to Chinese demands to deport them.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Sunday that the government did not understand the US decision to link military cooperation with the deportation.

“We don’t know why the US is still linking its military aid to the matter of the Uighurs, but we are not disappointed and it is the right of the US,” he said.

A total of 22 Uighurs arrived in Cambodia in November and applied for political asylum through UNHCR after fleeing ethnic violence in Urumqi, the capital of China’s restive Xinjiang province, in July.

On December 19, 20 of the group were forced onto a charter flight to China, two days before a Chinese delegation signed US$1.2 billion worth of economic aid agreements with Cambodia. Two Uighurs who escaped prior to the deportation remain unaccounted for.

US embassy spokesman John Johnson said in a statement Sunday that the US government was “deeply disturbed” by the asylum seekers’ deportation to China, where, some have said, they face torture and other ill treatment.

He said the suspension of the lorry shipment would remain in place for an “undefined” period. “We have thoroughly reviewed this issue and are not considering additional actions at this time,” he added.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, posited that the US action was intended to placate domestic constituencies and would have little bearing on the long-term warming of bilateral relations.

“US foreign policy has been clear since the end of last year, that the US is returning to the region,” he said. “I strongly believe the US stands on good terms with the Cambodian government. We have much space for the improvement in bilateral relations.”

During 2008 and 2009, the US donated 67 army lorries to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces through the EDA programme. In July, the two countries are set to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.

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