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
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.
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!"