Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - What's in a name? Quite a lot perhaps.

What's in a name? Quite a lot perhaps.

What's in a name? Quite a lot perhaps.

John C. Brown examines the semantics of the controversial draft of the Immigration Law.

A draft of the Royal government's new immi gration law is now publicly available, and after months of quiet, behind the scenes discussions and feed-back, the United Nations Human Rights Field Office and UNHCR have both come out strongly against it.

Without contesting the weight of their criticisms, it might be worth pointing to a small fact with potentially positive consequences. When the 1993 Cambodian constitution says that Khmer citizens have the rights stipulated, it uses the word jun-jiat-Khmai. The draft immigration law uses saeng-jiat-Khmai.

To those concerned about human rights, the difference in language is potentially significant. The new Royal Government was criticized by Amnesty International for a constitution that appeared to specify rights only for those who are ethnic Khmer. The Immigration Law appears to avoid ethnic criteria when it talks about those who are not aliens - that is those who are Cambodian nationals.

The term used in the Immigration Law is more inclusive than the Constitution's phrase. In fact it is perfectly acceptable usage of the term for someone to assert "Knom jun-jiat-Vietnam, Saeng-jiat-Khmai, I am ethnic Vietnamese and a Cambodian national."

As to whether such a sentence is true depends on what the Cambodian nationality law stipulates. And as has been pointed out by the Immigration Law's critics, that law has not yet been written.

Many Cambodians have told me that there is little or no distinction between asserting: "Knom jun-jiat-Khmai, Saeng-jiat-Khmai."

But admitting that in common usage most people make little distinction between these phrases is not to say that "Knom jun-jiat Khmai, jun-jiat Vietnam" is a Khmer sentence that any Cambodian would find sensible. Thus if the immigration law defined non-aliens, that is Cambodian nationals, as jun-jiat Khmer, no Vietnamese could ever be a Cambodian national.

The immigration law at least leaves open the possibility that some ethnic Vietnamese can also be Cambodian nationals. It makes it possible for some to say (truthfully, by law): "Knom jun-jiat Khmai, jun-jiat Vietnam."

Similarly, a member of Cambodia's hill-tribes would continue to say, but with legal force, what many Khmer admit can now be said by them: "Knom jun-jiat peak-tic (minority), sang-jiat-Khmai." Though they are called Khmai Leu (upper Cambodians), I have found no one to say that they are jun-jiat-Khmai. And similarly with the Chinese in Cambodia and the Cham. They are all Saeng-jiat-Khmai, but not jun-jiat-khmai.

One might argue that discussions about the scope of common nouns used in laws are a Western obsession.

Perhaps. Certainly, whether the law uses one phrase or the other is to many Cambodians to whom I have spoken a matter of no moment.

But without exception the Cambodians to whom I have talked do think it a matter of considerable importance whether, and on what basis, ethnic Vietnamese are granted citizenship or allowed in the country or allowed to stay in the country. And here lies the fear of many in the human rights community: an immigration law in tandem with an exclusionary nationality law could be used to "purify" or "cleanse" Cambodia.

The use of saeng-jiat Khmai in the Immigration Law does not mean that any Vietnamese will be accepted as "not aliens," that is as Cambodian nationals. It certainly does not mean that all of the Vietnamese now in Cambodia will be given Cambodian citizenship, but it does mean that some may.

If the Immigration Law used the word junjiat khmai when identifying those who are not aliens, governmental action to place all Vietnamese in a threatened, perpetually insecure status, would at least be consistent with the language of the law. The language of the draft Immigration Law appears to make that less likely. And that is positive.

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