WHO is Khmer and who isn't? According to legal experts, the draft Nationality Law
now being debated by MPs is not going to be much help in deciding this touchy subject.
In fact, they say the draft is subjective, vague, inconsistent, in some areas unconstitutional
and, if passed unaltered, could be arbitrarily applied by authorities.
For example, Article 2 states that no Khmer citizen shall be deprived of his/her
citizenship or exiled. But Article 19 says the opposite, that nationality shall be
removed from any naturalized person who expresses "insulting and contemptible
behavior toward the Khmer race, commits crimes or other offenses harmful to national
security and interest".
The Constitution says that Cambodian nationals shall not be deprived of citizenship,
exiled or extradited.
"When you have nationality you can not take it away. If they want to deprive
[a person] off nationality, they have to amend the Constitution," said one legal
expert who requested anonymity.
Another said that article 19 violated the equality provision in the Constitution
by treating naturalized citizens as second-class citizens.
"Once a person becomes a citizen, he or she is equal to all citizens without
exception," he said.
Cambodians are unlikely to be treated harshly under the law. However, the experts
feared that the law could be used to discriminate against non-Khmer residents, especially
Vietnamese who are vulnerable to any eventual expulsion from the country.
They say the new law says that aliens wishing to apply for naturalization must provide
papers certifying them as having stayed continuously in Cambodia for five years from
the date they were given a residential card - a card that will be granted under the
"That means any paper issued by the State of Cambodia (SoC) government (up until
1991) will become worthless, and that was unfair", said one Western observer.
"I think Vietnamese [living in Cambodia] will be the obvious target. We don't
want to see this law implemented arbitrarily," he said.
While no identification cards have been issued under the two-year-old Immigration
Law, the content of the new law was "a step backward" in dealing with immigration
and citizenship issues, the observer said.
"They are denying the reality of history; it's as if the world begins the day
this [Nationality] law is passed," said one observer.
"Aliens who have lived here for years have to be here for another five years
to become citizens. This law does not recognize people's previous residence,"
"When they start giving ID cards they'll go from house to house asking people
if they're Khmer. The person who is going to decide who gets an ID is going to make
a lot of money," he said.
MP Ahmad Yahya proposed that the residence papers issued by the SoC regime to the
ethnic Vietnamese should be re-examined by the Government - and not automatically
denied - before deciding to issue new ID cards to them.
"The Vietnamese have their own territory. [But] if the Government wishes Cambodia
to become another Kampuchea Krom [in southern Vietnam], just give out many ID cards
[to Vietnamese]. That's up to the Government," Yahya said.
Another article requires that a child above 18 who was born in Cambodia but had a
foreign parent who was also born and lives "normally" here must also have
to apply for citizenship.
That clause was legally wrong and must be changed to ensure that all children born
here automatically became Khmer citizens, lawyers said.
MP Dit Munty argued for such a change during a Parliamentary debate on July 8, but
Yahya, who is also a US citizen, strongly opposed such automatic citizenship.
"Cambodia can not yet reach the stage of giving automatic nationality by birth
like in America. It is in a period of defending its identity and integrity,"
he said in a later interview .
Although most of the population believe they are Khmer nationals, lawyers argued
that "legally" they may not be so entitled as long as the law doesn't provide
legal grounds for them to prove the nationality of their parents.
"Nationality by birth is built on a circular debate that can not be answered,"
"Can you legally prove you are Khmer, your parents are Khmer and theirs were