Inside Cover: 31 May 2010

Inside Cover: 31 May 2010

PHNOM PENH – Iguanas are big, ugly lizards that scurry about in the undergrowth and make harsh croaky sounds.

They remind me of members of the US congress, who are also prone to making distasteful spluttering noises.

Covering Capitol Hill as bureau chief for a news organisation in Washington, I soon discovered that many senators and congressmen pontificated at length on issues they knew little about.

It was most evident when the topic was Southeast Asia, which, since the Vietnam War ended and especially after 9/11, has fallen off the map for most American policymakers.

Senator Jim Webb, chairman of the congressional East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, however, is an exception.

Before his visit to the region this week, Webb lamented: “American interaction in East and Southeast Asia has declined significantly in recent years, in large part because we have not sufficiently pursued economic and diplomatic opportunities there.”

This was reinforced last month when his bid to boost funds for the state department’s bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs by US$100 million was rejected by his fellow committee members.

Next year, Economic Support Funds (ESF) for East Asia will be cut from $177.9 million to $61.3 million – a 65 percent reduction.

As if that were not bad enough, along comes the 2010 Cambodian Trade Act, introduced in the House of Representatives on May 20 by Congressman William Delahunt.

Let us be blunt about Delahunt: His proposed legislation is vengeful, narrow-minded and counterproductive.

Its aim is to ensure that Cambodia’s debt to the United States will never be reduced or forgiven, and that duty-free access for its textiles will be banned.

The motive for Delahunt and his colleagues to punish Cambodia in this way is because Phnom Penh sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China last December.

The Uighurs had fled riots in Xinjiang last July, and China called them “criminals” – just as many Muslims nabbed by post-9/11 bounty hunters were called “terrorists” by the US and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

My anger at the way this incident is being used to justify America’s proposed Cambodian Trade Act is fuelled by memories of my own visit to Guantanamo in 2006.

Viewing the detention camp and interrogation rooms firsthand were experiences that will stay with me forever.

Most tragic were the 22 Uighurs held in Guantanamo because they’d had the misfortune to be in Afghanistan at the wrong time.

By then, it had been conceded that they were not terrorists, but they could not be released because no one wanted them and they did not want to return to China.
So they were kept at Guantanamo in a separate place called Camp Iguana, which we were expressly forbidden to visit.

But we certainly saw plenty of iguanas because Guantanamo is infested with them. And right now, it appears that there is a particularly bad infestation of them in the US congress.

correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times. He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.

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