The country's election monitoring organizations (EMOs) have called for enforcement of the nationality law to prevent political parties whipping up racist sentiments during the upcoming commune elections. This follows protests against the registration of some Vietnamese immigrants as voters.
Cambodia's major political parties last crossed swords over the issue of illegal Vietnamese immigrants during the 1998 general elections - with the clear aim of scoring political points. Concerns that they will do so again lie behind the EMOs announcement.
"Though exact figures are not available, I think that the number of Vietnamese who have registered cannot affect the election results in any way. But as long as their status violates Cambodia's nationality law, the disputes will persist," said Comfrel executive director, Koul Panha.
The other EMOs, Nicfec and Coffel, said that although there was nothing illegal with ethnic Vietnamese holding valid residence IDs from voting, gaps in law enforcement left the issue open to exploitation. They said a lasting solution could involve deciding the fate of illegal immigrants by issuing a sub-decree and royal decree, as required under the law.
Cambodia's nationality law requires people seeking Khmer citizenship to comply with certain conditions. Among the criteria laid down in a sub-decree are a command of the language and knowledge of the country's history and culture.
Coffel executive director Sek Sophal quoted articles 7, 8 and 16 of the law which stipulate that nationalization could be conferred only by royal decree. He said that since a decree had not been issued - even in the case of several thousand Vietnamese immigrants who were naturalized in the 1990s -these people continued to be labeled 'illegal immigrants' even if they had family books, election cards and Cambodian IDs.
"Going strictly by the law, even those who are issuing voter IDs to Vietnamese [or any other immigrants] can be tried for violation under articles 20 and 22 of the law," he added. These articles state that anyone who conceals or issues ID cards or passports to someone which has not been granted citizenship will be punished in the same way as those holding illegal documents.
More than the naturalized Vietnamese, who form a fraction of the country's estimated 500,000 illegal Vietnamese immigrants, continuing illegal immigration through the porous border combined with widespread corruption have made it a highly charged issue.
A senior official in the Foreign Affairs ministry cited traditional rivalry between the two countries that dates back centuries centered around Vietnamese invasion and subsequent annexation of historically Cambodian territory. What many Cambodians still refer to as Kampuchea Krom, for instance, is now in southern Vietnam.
"Cambodians believe that the Vietnamese are coming to their country in large numbers with the long-term agenda of spreading themselves on Khmer territories and eventually annexing it with Vietnam. We have no problem with the Chinese, Bangla-deshis, Laotians or the Burmese who might come here to earn a living. But the Vietnamese...they are a different case," he said.
The ruling CPP has become identified as pro-Vietnamese, given its strong ties to that country following the overthrow of the Democratic Kampuchea government. While the CPP supported the right of naturalized Vietnamese to register for the first two elections, the party's opponents saw it as a ploy to increase its voter base at the expense of the national interest.
During the 1998 national census, officials collected figures on the number of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. These were not publicized, as the government feared an anti-Vietnamese backlash. Even now, while a section of Vietnamese are trying to assert themselves by seeking to register for the elections, the government has remained tight-lipped over their exact legal status.
During the recently concluded registration process, various Commune Election Committees (CECs) held meetings to allow Vietnamese immigrants to pre-sent their case for getting the voter ID. Those who were able to satisfy basic criteria could register, while the names of those who failed to turn up were struck off from a list of potential voters.
The EMOs said that ethnic Vietnamese brought with them Cambodian ID cards, their 1998 voter card and, in some cases, were accompanied by local authorities or commune chiefs. The EMOs had heard that bribes of $20 to $30 were being paid.
"Naturally, the idea is again that if they are allowed to vote, it might favor to the ruling CPP," Nil Veasna of Coffel said. That probably explains why this time, stray protests have emerged from the SRP, while the CPP and its political ally Funcinpec have chosen to ignore the issue.
In its report on irregularities and disputes during the registration process, Coffel said 46 percent of disputes arose over the questionable nationality of potential voters, suggesting that nationality remained an important electoral issue.
The EMOs say around 30 per cent of the estimated 500,000 ethnic Vietnamese have successfully registered as voters for the commune elections and they could again be used by the politicians for indulging in their political games.
Khieu Kanharith, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Information, dismissed this argument saying the Vietnamese issue did not matter for the commune elections.
"The opposition [Sam Rainsy Party] is merely using the issue to play on the Khmer sentiments to garner additional support during the elections," he said.
SRP secretary general Eng Chhai Eang insisted the issue of who was allowed to register was important. He claimed that as few as 10 Vietnamese votes in a single commune could tilt the balance in favor of the CPP.