John C. Brown argues against citizenship based on
ho are the citizens of Cambodia? An un-thinking answer is
that Cambodian citizens are the people of the Khmer race who live in Cambodia.
There are several countries where strong connections between ethnicity and
citizenship underlie government policy. But opinion, in the west at least, has
moved away from making explicit connections between citizenship and ethnicity.
This move is generally defended on human rights grounds, but there are also
pragmatic reasons to defend the move. These can be illustrated by the experience
of countries who have made explicit the connection between ethnicity and
A draft law on immigration was adopted by the Cabinet of
Ministers on May 20, the government news agency AKP reported. One of the issues
some hope the law will address is citizenship. However the report gave no
indication of whether ethnic Vietnamese and other minorities living in Cambodia
would be granted full citizenship and enjoy the same rights as Khmers. Ministry
of Interior sources said in earlier reports that the bill skirted round the
controversy of defining nationality.
The National Assembly will resume
deliberation on June 6, but there is as yet no indication if the immigration law
will be debated.
According to the Constitution, citizenship is to be
defined by law. In the Constitution, Citizenship appears to be defined
ethnically. When political rights are specified, the Constitution says plainly
Khmer citizens have the rights specified. This leads naturally to the conclusion
that only the ethnic Khmer are citizens, and thus that citizenship is ethnically
defined. This interpretation excludes the Chinese, the highland Khmer and the
Cham. It also places any ethnic Vietnamese into a second class status, if not a
fully illegal one, even if they have lived in Cambodia for generations, as some
most certainly have.
But the experience of other countries indicates that
defining citizenship in terms of ethnicity can lead to problems with human
But the trend in international politics is to define certain
rights in human, rather than legal terms. Of course political rights, like the
right to vote, are rights that only citizens can have. But there are other
rights, like the right to life, that all humans share, independent of their
citizenship and their ethnicity. Defining citizenship in terms of ethnicity
creates a political caste system in which some ethnic groups will always remain
Israel, Germany and Japan have defined citizenship in
terms of ethnicity. All are grappling with the problems that have resulted.
Israel's problems with the Palestinians need no elaboration. In Germany
nationalist violence has been increasing since unification. In Japan there are
deep difficulties with ethnic Koreans who have lived and worked in Japan for as
long as four generations but who are still denied citizenship. In all of these
countries the roots of the problems being faced are the connection between
citizenship and ethnicity.
In Germany citizenship was defined by
ethnicity in the 1949, post World War II Constitution. Germany is now a country
with six and a half million foreigners. None are immigrants. Most are guest
workers, or asylum seekers. One cannot legally emigrate to Germany. Millions of
guest workers were brought in during the 1960's to an economically resurgent
Germany. The children of these workers, born in Germany, schooled and socialized
in Germany differ from their German school mates in one important way, they are
not ethnic Germans, and under current law will never be eligible for
citizenship. They are second class citizens and treated that way. In contrast,
anyone who can show that they have German blood can claim citizenship, even if
their family has lived in Volga Russia for generations and speak no
In the current economic dislocations of German unification,
guest-workers and their children became easy targets for a dissatisfied and
resurgent nationalism that was racist and in some cases,
Certainly the attitudes and actions of the hate groups in
Germany did not originate from the government, but the government shares
responsibility for their resurgence, in part by failing to create the legal
conditions by which some of these people could attain citizenship. By pursuing
policies that are interpreted as "Germany for the Germans", the German
government has partially legitimized the actions of anti-ethnic hate
In Japan, Koreans were allowed to immigrate under Imperial policy
in the 1930s, but are still treated as second class citizens in the 1990s. It is
almost impossible for them to become full citizens. Small numbers of Koreans,
who change their family name and who deny all of their culture, are allowed to
become full citizens. The practical effect of Japanese citizenship policy is to
alienate Koreans from their own culture, to destroy their roots. It is said that
home visits are required as part of the application procedure, any evidence of
Korean culture can be the basis for the denial of citizenship. In reaction to
laws that seem meant to ensure that "Japan is only for the Japanese," young
Koreans in Japan have begun to emphasize their ethnicity, and Japan will face
the problems that this has created.
Like Japan and Germany, Cambodia's
current situation is a partial product of war. Like Japan and Germany, Cambodia
must face the potentialities rooted in its own past. Unlike Germany and Japan,
Cambodia cannot afford the "luxury" of ethnic intolerance racial
To solve Cambodia's many problems, the help and money of the
international community will be needed, and the efforts of all of Cambodia's
peoples will be required. Fights over human rights issues - like the connection
between citizenship and ethnicity or the treatment of immigrants - will hurt all
Cambodians no matter what their ethnicity.
The Royal Government can
choose to say to the Cambodian people, and to the international community, that
the human rights of everyone in Cambodia will be protected. By avoiding
ethnicity as a criteria for citizenship, the protection of the law canbe
explicitly extended to all humans in Cambodia.
Of course having
citizenship laws that ignore ethnicity will not by itself solve the problems of
racism and the violation of human rights. But it is the indispensable first
step. In the United States, most citizens are immigrants or the children of
immigrants. The US prides itself and defines itself in terms of ethnic
heterogeneity. This American self-understanding is codified in law. Citizenship
is no longer defined by race. After a civil war and years of unpleasantness, all
American citizens in principle and by law have the same rights, however extreme
their differences in race, religion, or ethnicity. But this has not made America
a tolerant nation. There are still sharp and destructive racial
But US law stipulates standards against which the the behavior
of the state and the behavior of its citizens can be judged and in light of
which unacceptable behavior can be avoided or punished.
policies of ethnic equality were easy, the question would not have to be raised.
One difficult problem is that sentiments like "Cambodia for the Khmer" are
shared in the government and among citizens, not only in Cambodia, but also in
Israel, Japan, Germany and to some extent, the US.
There are only two
solutions, education, and strong moral leadership from the government. Cambodia
must follow the example of other nations whose laws, however imperfect in
execution, show that human rights do not depend on ethnicity.