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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vietnamese lose vote as race card played

Vietnamese lose vote as race card played


An ethnic Vietnamese woman is led away from a polling booth in Kandal province after being prevented from voting by the mob behind her.

A mob of Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) supporters blocked as many as 100 ethnic Vietnamese

from voting at Wat Champa in Kandal Province on July 27. District security officials,

outnumbered and unwilling to intervene, stood by as demonstrators stole identification

cards and expelled the Vietnamese from the polling station.

Many of the would-be voters fled in terror. A few, after struggling with the hostile

crowd, gave up casting their ballots. Hapless election officials could only escort

harried residents from the crowd of more than 70 people, mostly young men.

"I was finding my name in the list when they came and grabbed away my voting

card," said Gvian Yiang Chourng, who lives in the nearby ethnic Vietnamese village

of Chrouy Ampul. "I was born here in Cambodia, and my grandparents as well.

Why can't I vote?"

The chief of the village, Guien Trong Vay, 77, said it was the first time in ten

years he had not voted. He estimated that just ten out of more than 100 registered

to vote in the village had successfully cast their ballot.

"I went to vote at 8 a.m.," he said. "I tried to go but I was blocked.

They grabbed me by my neck."

SRP officials who arrived on the scene were unapologetic.

"We cannot blame these young people," said Chan Cheng, Kandal province's

leading SRP candidate and a member of the steering committee. "They are the

real nationalists in Cambodia. That's what Cambodian people should do. We should

not be afraid of doing the right thing for the country."

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy denied any association with the demonstration and claimed

that "anyone can pretend to be SRP supporters."

"The SRP wants to distance itself from this demonstration," Rainsy said

shortly after the incident. "We cannot be associated in any way. We have to

denounce violence to prevent violence."

He said he had ordered an investigation, but failed to explain why several demonstrators

later arrived at party headquarters on election day brandishing as many as 30 voting

cards and identification documents taken from Vietnamese residents in Kandal. Witnesses

said no action was taken against them.

Police were guarding the polling station claimed National Election Committee (NEC)

rules mandating buffer zones meant they were unable to act. District governor, Sot

Ya, standing at the entrance to the station, told the Post that if he sent in more

security, "someone will accuse me of threatening people".

Although several ID cards were confiscated by police guarding the station, and six

demonstrators briefly detained, the mob was not deterred. They were finally dispersed

after two heavily armed columns of gendarmerie arrived from the Ministry of Interior

at the request of the NEC. By that time, however, voting had nearly closed.


International observers repeatedly cited the SRP and Funcinpec for inflammatory rhetoric

against ethnic minorities. ANFREL accused them of "antagonism against ... Vietnamese"

contrary to "the spirit of democracy". The International Republican Institute

also noted their "irresponsible use of rhetoric inciting ethnic tensions".

Both Funcinpec and the SRP maintain that officials from the ruling Cambodian People's

Party (CPP) stacked voter lists with Vietnamese citizens. Election monitors reported

that the parties campaigned on the promise to deport illegal Vietnamese.

Koul Panha, the head of election monitoring NGO Comfrel, said the charges were a

long political tradition of playing on fears about ethnic Vietnamese.

"During the election campaign, the media use a lot of aggressive words to campaign

against Vietnamese in Cambodia, especially the opposition and Funcinpec media,"

said Panha. "It has been like this for a long time."

In the 1993 national election, former Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh, currently

the Funcinpec front-runner for Kandal province, told the Post his party ran on an

anti-Vietnamese platform, so, "of course we won".

Racial violence also marred the 1998 election period in Phnom Penh. Four Vietnamese

were beaten and killed, two in front of Funcinpec's headquarters.

To deflect charges of racism, both parties portray the issue of Vietnamese immigrants

as historical and political rather than racial. Many Khmer consider the ethnic Vietnamese

as illegal residents, regardless of their lineage.

Estimates of how many ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia vary because official figures

were withheld. Authorities did not release figures in the 1998 census for questions

such as 'birthplace' and 'mother tongue', leaving the official number of ethnic Vietnamese

in doubt.

Rainsy has pegged the number at "more than 1 million", or roughly 10 percent

of the population. Others claim it is as high as two million, while the government

insists it is only 100,000.

Voting rights
Whatever the figure, election monitoring organizations reported that both

the SRP and Funcinpec mounted campaigns to disqualify voters with Vietnamese backgrounds.

Comfrel said party officials filed 94 complaints with the NEC to remove more than

15,000 ethnic Vietnamese from voter roles. The NEC rejected most of the complaints.

The controversy centers on what makes a Cambodian citizen.

"There is no formalized naturalization process," said Dominic Cardy of

the National Democratic Institute (NDI). "It ends up becoming a political football.

I hope whoever wins the election takes it upon themselves to make it clear who is


He said the confusion created opportunities for politicians to "whip up ethnic


The Law of Nationality defines who qualifies as a citizen. For example, any child

born to a parent of "Khmer nationality/citizenship" may claim citizenship,

as may anyone born in Cambodia whose parents are "living legally in the Kingdom".

But it is not clear what constitutes legal residence. There are numerous inconsistencies

in the application of the law. NDI attempted to hold a conference on the matter this

year, but participants refused to attend citing political concerns.

"It's a big issue, and no one wants to talk about it," said Cardy.

But SRP supporters at Wat Champa in Kandal on election day were eager to weigh in

on why ethnic Vietnamese were unfit to vote.

"A lot of Vietnamese want to interfere in Cambodian politics," said Bun,

42. "We will not allow this to happen. If we don't block them, the CPP will


As time ran out on the 3 p.m. voting deadline at Wat Champa, shouts went up.

"We cheer because it's time to close the ballot box," said Hang Makara,

23. "Our job is done. We are happy since we can block these Vietnamese. We want

justice in that."

Amid the clapping, a boy cried, "Long live democratic Cambodia!"



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