PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia bristled Friday at a U.S. decision to cut a small military aid program to protest the December deportation of Muslim asylum seekers to , saying if they deserved protection the United States could have offered it.
The United States announced Thursday it had suspended the program that supplied surplus trucks and trailers. It was a response to Cambodia's deportation of the 20 Uighurs who had fled ethnic violence last year in China's far west. China accused the Uighurs of involvement in the violence.
The suspension involves about 200 vehicles supplied directly to the Cambodian military and does not affect the roughly $60 million civilian aid program to Cambodia, said U.S. Embassy spokesman John Johnson.
In statements to the U.N. refugee agency, the Uighurs said they witnessed and documented the July rioting in the Xinjiang region between their Han Chinese and that they feared lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty if they were returned to China. It was China's worst ethnic violence in decades.and majority
"These Uighurs were not real political asylum seekers," said Cambodian government spokesman. "If they were real political asylum seekers, the United States could have granted them asylum in the U.S."
"We're happy if the United States provides us with aid, but it's their right to suspend it," he said.
China had called the group criminals and presented Cambodia with arrest warrants, the spokesman said. Cambodia said it deported the group because they had entered the country illegally.
"Cambodia couldn't refuse the request from China to deport them, because China sent us arrest warrants," Khieu Kanharith said.
China is key ally and donor to impoverished Cambodia.
Days after the deportations, China announced a $1.2 billion aid package to Cambodia. China has denied the aid was linked to politics saying it came with "no strings attached."
The group of Uighurs had made the journey from China's far west through to Vietnam and then Cambodia with the help of a network of missionary groups.
The U.S., the U.N. and several rights groups had urged Cambodia not to deport the group. Following the deportations, the U.S. said it was "deeply disturbed" and that the incident would affect Cambodia's relationship with the United States.
China has not revealed the fate of the deportees.
Overseas activist groups say Uighurs in China have been rounded up in mass detentions since the summer's violence that killed about 200 people in Xinjiang. Almost 200 people have been tried and several dozen death sentences have been handed down, although authorities haven't said how many people have been executed.