The Cambodia National Rescue Party plans to send 2,000 observers to voter registration stations next month to monitor for “foreigners” who possess ID cards but can’t speak Khmer or produce other relevant citizenship documents – a move analysts called worrying given longstanding discrimination against ethnic Vietnamese.
Legal complaints will be filed against those failing to meet the criteria, opposition party officials said yesterday following an internal workshop on nationality and immigration, a topic that has recently flared on social media.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that while foreigners with national ID cards have the right to register, if they cannot speak Khmer or produce the royal decree for their naturalisation, the party would turn to the Law on Nationality as a basis for its complaints.
“When the NEC says that foreigners who cannot speak Khmer can register provided they have identification cards, this is not in accordance with the spirit of the Law on Nationality, Article 8,” Sovann said. “So, we are prepared to file complaints.”
That article centres on naturalisation, with one of the criteria being that applicants be able to “speak Khmer, know Khmer script and have some knowledge of Khmer history”.
While acknowledging that the CNRP is free to lodge complaints, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea yesterday said the body relied on the national ID cards for processing and would not challenge their validity themselves.
“The law states that if there is someone with an identification card, the NEC will register them,” he said.
However, he said that if observers felt there was an irregularity, parties had the right to lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Interior, which was in charge of issuing IDs.
Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman, rejected that his ministry was responsible, saying the NEC was the final arbiter in election matters and would deal with any registration irregularities.
He added that all naturalised citizens needing Royal Decrees to prove the validity of their ID cards could collect them from the ministry.
The CNRP has frequently been criticised for employing anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. In 2013, amid opposition claims of droves of illegal Vietnamese immigrants living in Cambodia, angry mobs chased ethnic Vietnamese away from polling stations.
Human rights consultant Billy Chia-Lung Tai said Cambodia’s Vietnamese population was already marginalised by society as it is, and that the CNRP’s voting criteria appeared a thinly disguised attempt to keep them away from the polls.
“It appears this is a catchall for the CNRP, where you have to tick all the boxes to be considered Khmer,” he said. He also questioned the capacity of the 2,000 observers to make a determination on language proficiency.
“I don’t know if these observers will be able to determine that and make a legal case if they are complaining about people they don’t like or don’t look Khmer enough,” he added.
Political analyst and Future Forum founder Ou Virak, said there was little doubt the move was playing on fears regarding Vietnam.
“It does appear to be racial profiling and it is to put pressure on an ethnic group,” he said.
He added that the government also bore responsibility for the lack of clarity around immigration issues and the subsequent loss of public confidence.
The fact that concern about the issue was finding purchase among average Cambodians was far from surprising given the trauma of the recent past, Virak said.
“It’s not hard for them to believe in anti-Vietnam theories, and politicians have known that for a long time and use it,” he said. “It is unfortunate, but it’s popular among the people and everyone knows it.”