The Cambodian Interior Ministry said its handling of immigration issues, especially with ethnic Vietnamese minority groups in the country, was an attempt to stifle “nationalistic politics” used by the opposition to target the government.
The Interior Ministry on Friday released a statement highlighting its achievements in addressing long-standing immigration issues from 2014 to June 2019, which had seen residency documentation presented to 89,786 people, 89,741 of whom were ethnic Vietnamese. During the same time, the government had revoked the documentation of 69,957 people, with 69,878 people from the ethnic minority group.
The Ministry of Interior referred to both groups of people – those with and without documentation – as “foreigners,” despite rights groups saying that the ethnic Vietnamese communities had lived in Cambodia for generations and faced persecution on account of their precarious legal status. They were also persecuted by the Khmer Rouge and their persecution resulted in genocide charges and convictions against two senior regime leaders.
Rights groups and the United Nations alleged that the revocation of documentation from ethnic minority communities in the last few years had rendered these groups stateless and vulnerable to exploitation and persecution.
Khieu Sopheak, a secretary of state at the ministry, said the presence of ethnic Vietnamese people living in Cambodia had been used as a political “ploy” and “excuse” for decades, including against the current Cambodian People’s Party government.
“We have to look precisely into the [immigration] issue in Cambodia, nationalistic sentiments have been used as a [political] weapon to overthrow [regimes] or as a point for the politicians and the political groups to exploit and extract political benefit,” Khieu Sopheak said on Monday.
The dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party had stoked long-standing anti-Vietnamese sentiments in Cambodia, which involved questioning the border resolution process with Vietnam and criticism of the government’s policy towards the ethnic minority group.
In the statement, the Interior Ministry said the immigration issue was given its potential “threats and risks to the national security, social orders, and public safety.”
Khieu Sopheak admitted that local authorities, including some commune chiefs, police officers, and even a former Interior Ministry secretary of state, had issued irregular identification documents to the ethnic Vietnamese, but downplayed the possibility of prosecuting them.
“In case we take measures [against those officials] it means we need to build more prisons capable of accommodating tens of thousands of [prisoners], adding up to our already crowded prisons,” Khieu Sopheak said, laughing.
Despite rights groups consistently pointing to Cambodia’s notoriously overcrowded prisons, the government has continued its “war against drugs” by arresting thousands of Cambodians for alleged drug crimes.
The Interior Ministry statement was released a day after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s President, and the Communist Party’s chief spoke on the telephone, where the latter renewed Hanoi’s calls for Phnom Penh to create “favorable conditions” for the ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia.
The Communist Party’s official newspaper Nhan Dan also reported on Nguyen Phu Trong’s request but the content did not appear in Cambodian Foreign Ministry’s press statement about the conversation.
But, Khieu Sopheak said the phone call between the two leaders was not related to the Interior Ministry’s release of a statement.
The United Nations’ Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination in December 2019 released findings that showed the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were facing physical violence, anti-Vietnamese hate speech, enforced relocations, and confiscations of their identification documents.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party in its repeated complaints about alleged irregularities during the 2013 General Election said that many ethnic Vietnamese people were issued with identification documents and could vote for the ruling party.
The opposition, dissolved in November 2017 in a controversial Supreme Court’s decision, often accused the ruling party of being weak on Vietnam-related issues – citing the CPP’s history of coming to power on the back of a Vietnamese offensive against the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
At the same time, former members of the CNRP announced the formation of the Border and Immigration Affairs Commission, consisting of hardline government critics who have stoked anti-Vietnamese sentiments, to scrutinize government’s practice from exiles. Senior former CNRP members are living in exile, fearing persecution from the government, following the party’s dissolution.
Phil Robertson, deputy director at Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the immigration reform process in Cambodia in the past several years had rendered multiple ethnic Vietnamese vulnerable to rights abuses, racism, and extortion.
“Cambodia should be addressing their statelessness by issuing documents that recognize their legal presence in the country and offering a fair and transparent path to citizenship that recognizes these people have been living in the country for generations,” Phil Robertson said in an email.
Phil Robertson was equally critical of the Vietnamese government’s record on dealing with ethnic minorities, which includes Kampuchea Krom indigenous communities in the Mekong Delta and the Montagnards.
“Both groups face constant hostility from the Vietnamese government which is outrageous and totally unacceptable,” he said. “Cambodia must also end the corruption and blocks that prevent Khmer Krom who flee to Cambodia from receiving government documentation attesting to their full citizenship.”