Cambodia’s political calculus

A protester holds a placard during a protest against the Australian government’s asylum-seeker policy in Melbourne in July 2013
A protester holds a placard during a protest against the Australian government’s asylum-seeker policy in Melbourne in July 2013. AFP

Cambodia’s political calculus

Recent articles on a deal to bring refugees to Cambodia from Australia have caught public attention. Concerns raised range from Cambodia’s readiness to receive refugees to the means available for effectively resettling refugees given the living conditions of the local people.

My question is slightly different though. I wish to address the conditions that are conducive to Cambodia’s inconsistent policy and behaviour in dealing with refugee issues. Political calculus – including the state’s political interests and support from the sending countries, particularly influential states – is an outstanding factor. Among the adverse consequences of this inconsistency is the naming and shaming of Cambodia by the international community.

On the spectrum of political interests, the country once had a great need for the resettlement of its own people, as hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees were displaced and settled by Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, and then resettled by third countries, including Australia, in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Having signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention in the early 1990s, Cambodia is obliged to accept refugees. If acting in consistence with the convention’s obligations, there would not be any naming or shaming by the international community of Cambodia. Indeed, on some occasions, the acceptance of refugees under the treaty obligations may help Cambodia strengthen diplomatic relations with the sending countries.

Cambodia has thus far accepted 68 refugees from several countries, including Myanmar. These refugees were resettled by Cambodia with support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and they were placed in a safe environment. In interviews in July with four Rohingya Muslim refugees who arrived in Cambodia in 2013, I was told that they were trying to adjust to Cambodian culture.

Additionally, the political position of the sending country does matter. Whether or not the government of the sending country requests Cambodia to settle or resettle refugees influences the Cambodian government’s decision. In the case of Australia, its government has promised to provide Cambodia with full political, monetary and technical support to help resettle those Middle Eastern refugees. At least $35 million was pocketed as a signing fee.

Cambodia seems eager to accept these refugees. However, in 2009, the Kingdom – despite being a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention for nearly two decades – rejected and controversially repatriated 20 Uighur refugees to China instead of resettling them in Cambodia or sending them to a third country.

Cambodia took this decision because China pressured it into doing so. In return, China continued to back the Cambodian government and rewarded the Kingdom with $850 million worth of trade deals. Cambodia was named and shamed by the international community for not fulfilling its obligations.

According to a Time magazine article dated September 29, 2014, kangaroo courts in China sentenced 17 of the 20 Uighurs to lengthy prison sentences.

Therefore, the inconsistency in refugee policy towards Uighur refugees is highly motivated by political calculus – gaining political interest and rewards from the governments of the sending countries, namely China and Australia. This simultaneously creates a negative image of Cambodia in the international arena.

Farina So is a doctoral student of global studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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