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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Nationality Law "liberal" though some cause for concern

Nationality Law "liberal" though some cause for concern

C AMBODIA'S controversial draft Nationality Law has been praised by observers as

"quite liberal" - though the same people fear that "ambiguous" clauses could

lead to wide-spread abuses against non-Khmer residents.

Under the

Interior Ministry's 20-article draft - now being reviewed by government lawyers

- all children having one parent born in Cambodia as "Khmer" qualify for

Cambodian citizenship.

Foreigners "who have no right to claim for

nationality" can ask the King for naturalization.

However, they have to

meet conditions such as being able to speak and write Khmer, have "proper

knowledge" of Khmer geography and history, and show "precise evidence" of their

practice of Khmer customs and tradition.

They must also have letters

certifying they have lived in Cambodia for five years from the date they were

granted resident-cards within the framework of the Immigration

Law.

Observers considered the requirements for naturalization were

impractical in a country like Cambodia where a large percentage of population

can not read and write their own language.

"Not even all Cambodians can

meet these requirements because the majority cannot read and write Khmer. Sixty

to seventy percent of adults are illiterate. The requirements just handicap all

foreigners," said one source, who requested anonymity.

The law - which

went before the Council of Ministers on Jan 18 - says in its first article that

the object was to specify Khmer nationality and citizenship of every individual

living in the territory of Cambodia.

Observers spoken to by the Post are

worried that some provisions of the law might still have a side-effect on

minority residents.

For instance, one observer who is close to the issue

said that the use of word '"Khmer" in defining nationality was very problematic,

and it tried to limit the opportunity for long-term minority residents, such as

Chinese, Chams and Vietnamese, to claim Khmer status.

"One concern is

that this law is used to exclude those who are not ethnically Khmers. The law

will raise fears that the Vietnamese may be targeted and particularly denied

citizenship. To avoid misunderstanding, it is better to use the word "Kampuchea"

for nationality," he said.

The law required proof of a five-year

continuous stay, recognized under the framework of the Immigration Law. Sources

said ethnic Vietnamese who had resident papers issued by the former State of

Cambodia government would be deemed ineligible for citizenship.

They

would have to apply for new resident cards under the Immigration Law and wait

for another five years to be eligible for naturalization, sources

said.

There were also claims that Article 13 of the draft Nationality Law

was in violation of Cambodia's constitution.

Article 13 says: "Those who

obtained Khmer nationality by naturalization shall be entitled to become Khmer

citizens. But their right to stand (as candidates) to be elected or appointed as

judges, commanders in the army, military police and national police, and as

(high ranking) senior officials in the administrative framework, shall be banned

for a period of 10 years."

The constitution says: "...Cambodian citizens

are equal before the law and have the same rights, freedoms and obligations,

regardless of race, color, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency,

ethnic origin, social wealth, or other status."

"The Vietnamese can be

recognized as residents, but not granted citizenship. What will be the message

to the State of Cambodia which issued those IDs? It is a question of fairness,"

said one observer.

In practice, ambiguity in the law may leave a lot of

room for corruption by people bribing their way to become citizens, he

said.

"There is big money with people trying to get Cambodian passports.

It's very easy with a few bucks to buy yourself into this country," said another

observer.

Gen. Luor Ramin, director of the immigration department, said

that more than 50 Cambodian passports have been confiscated from Chinese and

Vietnamese nationals during the past five months.

They were illegal

immigrants, he said, adding that it was difficult to determine their number in

the country as there was no nationality legislation to enforce the Immigration

Law passed in August last year.

The confiscation of those passports was

based on practical evidence like testing the bearer's skill in the Cambodian

language, he said.

"We've determined that the holders of Cambodian

passports must speak and write Khmer. If their testimony does not meet the

criteria, their passport must be confiscated," said Ramin.

He added that

passports were mostly obtained by bribing "crooked officials" using photos of

Khmer faces when applying for passports, before replacing them with their own

and fraudulently stamping them.

"The nationality law is desperately

needed because it is complicated implementing the Immigration Law without it,"

said Ramin.

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