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Voter language issue raised

National Election Committee president Sik Bun Hok (left) last week speaks to journalists in Phnom Penh, where he questioned the eligibility of lawmakers facing court charges to register as voters. Photo supplied
National Election Committee president Sik Bun Hok (left) last week speaks to journalists in Phnom Penh, where he questioned the eligibility of lawmakers facing court charges to register as voters. Photo supplied

Voter language issue raised

With little more than a fortnight until voter registration begins, the perennial election issues of voters’ nationality and eligibility have resurfaced, with the opposition party vowing a public forum on citizenship.

The workshop was announced yesterday by Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang in response to comments to members of the National Election Committee (NEC) that the body would register people with Cambodian identification cards, even if they are unable to speak Khmer.

Chhay Eang said the party would gather legal experts to examine and debate the law on nationality and immigration. He said the authorities might have broken the law by giving ID cards to foreigners who could not speak the language, and further problems would flow from letting them vote.

“In this case, if the foreigner takes an identification card that is issued illegally by the authorities to register to vote, what kind of crime is this and who will resolve all these problems?” he asked.

Although under Cambodian law, speaking and reading Khmer is a condition of naturalisation, anyone born in the Kingdom is automatically considered a citizen.

However, as many ethnic Vietnamese, as well as ethnic minorities, remain undocumented despite living in Cambodia for generations, issues of nationality, migration and eligibly have plagued elections – with the CNRP long-criticised for stoking anti-Vietnamese sentiment to drum up popular support.

In 2013, mobs of opposition supporters manned some election booths to block people they considered “illegal Vietnamese” from voting.

Responding yesterday, CNRP president Sam Rainsy said the party simply wanted to see the law followed.

“We only call for a strict implementation of the immigration law, the nationality law and the election law,” he said, via email.

Top Neth, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Identification, said he was unaware of reports of fake or illegally issued ID cards, though he acknowledged that did happen.

He said if the NEC was unable to resolve irregularities with ID cards at a sub-national level, then the national authorities would step in.

Koul Panha, head of election watchdog Comfrel, said NEC officials could recommend the Interior Ministry investigate in instances where people with ID cards were unable to speak Khmer, adding that their vote should still count if they have been properly registered.

Meanwhile, Comfrel said it planned to ask the NEC to clarify its position on whether politicians facing legal action would be eligible to register as voters.

That followed a suggestion on Friday by NEC member Sik Bun Hok that Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha might not be eligible to register as voters as they are “under the judgment of the law”.

The two men are among several opposition members facing legal cases that are widely considered to be politically motivated. To date, only Rainsy has been convicted.

Under the law, anyone convicted and sentenced cannot register to vote until they are “rehabilitated”.

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