By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Twenty-two members of a Chinese ethnic group who participated in violent demonstrations against China last summer have surfaced in Cambodia, sparking concerns that Cambodia will ignore their requests for asylum and return them to China.
The 22 Uighurs, including three children, trickled into Cambodia over the past several weeks, according to Omar Kanat, vice president of the World Uyghur Congress, a group that advocates for the rights of Uighurs in China. He said that two additional Uighurs have been detained in neighboring Vietnam and that five others, who were known to have fled China into Vietnam, have disappeared.
Violent anti-China demonstrations led by Uighurs rocked Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region of northwest China, on July 5.
At least 200 people died in the bedlam that involved Uighurs attacking Han Chinese and then bands of Han Chinese retaliating against Uighurs. Last month, China's state-run media reported that nine Uighurs had been executed for taking part in the riots. Kanat and other sources said that seven of the men who fled to Cambodia were wanted by the Chinese.
The Chinese government blamed the unrest on Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman who had been jailed in China and then exiled to the United States after pressure from the Bush administration.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said that Beijing wanted the Uighurs to be returned to China and that only a "handful of Uighurs in China are engaged in national splitism, religious extremism and violent terrorism."
A State Department spokeswoman said it is department policy not to comment on asylum cases.
Uighurs constitute a mostly Muslim ethnic group that speaks a Turkic language. For years, Uighur separatists have conducted a sometimes violent campaign against China's rule of the resource-rich Xinjiang region.
Cambodia has a troubled history when it comes to refugee rights. Human Rights Watch criticized Cambodia in a report this year for sending asylum-seekers back to Vietnam.
"Cambodia is not a good place to be a refugee these days," said Sophie Richardson, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.