A few weeks ago, I detailed the issue of nationalist politics and ethnic identity in Cambodia. In the wake of this past summer’s elections, which were tainted by myriad irregularities, the status of Vietnamese migrants has become one of the primary wedge issues between the country’s two main political parties. This division has been underscored by fiery and xenophobic rhetoric from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) leader, Sam Rainsy, and has also been punctuated by acts of violence committed against Vietnamese shops and communities.
The tide might be starting to turn, however. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, recently announced that it is planning to create two new departments within the Ministry of Interior: migration and identification. The move is widely believed to be aimed at quelling the country’s rampant anti-Vietnamese hysteria by responding to Khmer concerns over illegal immigration and a general distrust of the “yuon,” the controversial word Cambodians use to describe their neighbors to the east.
The CPP enjoys broad support amongst Vietnamese-Cambodians, so the decision might be a bitter pill for the long-serving premier to swallow. From a practical perspective, it would make sense to have an immigration policy that isn’t a complete shambles: proper identification documents are hard to come by, birth records even more so, and anything can be bought for a price. Better administration of the currently feckless bureaucracy should be a priority. From a political perspective, Hun Sen’s rationale might simply be to create the perception of doing something to placate the virulent racial antagonism that was displayed on the sidelines of recent street protests waged by frustrated garment factory workers.
In an even more extraordinary development, perhaps an effort at one-upmanship, Mr. Rainsy revealed that if his CNRP came to power as many as a quarter million Vietnamese living in Cambodia could be granted full citizenship in accordance with a previous legislative act designed to civically protect the children of foreigners. The opposition leader suggested that the party needed to articulate the immigration issue differently to its supporters, and claimed that accusations of racism directed at the CNRP was a “foreign-entertained allegation.”
Whether such contrivance is sincere or politically calculated, only Mr. Rainsy knows. But it is worth noting that these remarks were made to the Phnom Penh Post, an English-language newspaper. Sam Rainsy’s platform, stretching back to the late 1990s, has never included measures to amalgamate the Vietnamese community before. Moreover, my Cambodian associates tell me that there has been no mention by anyone from the CNRP of granting citizenship to any of the estimated 500,000 Vietnamese living in Cambodia in the Khmer press.
Rainsy’s vocabulary tends to be much more benevolent with the Western media. He and his henchmen are also currently making the rounds through the U.S. and Europe trying to drum up international support for a future CNRP-led government. It’s hard to imagine the image of Vietnamese businesses being torched by Khmers sporting CNRP shirts and hats playing well on the U.S. evening news, or with hawkish Republican politicians who have previously called for cutting direct aid to the CPP-led government. So it’s also in Rainsy’s interests to tone the rhetoric down a bit for the time being.
While there is cause to be cautiously optimistic that both sides appear willing to take initial steps to somewhat ameliorate this issue, a healthy dose of skepticism is needed. Neither party has made any tangible moves to compromise in the recent past, and Cambodia’s immigration discourse–perhaps better described as acute racial distrust–is an emotionally charged subject for many that can turn south quickly.
It is also an issue that Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy have exploited in order to score political points within their respective constituencies. When one starts delving a little deeper, it’s easy to discern that the motives of these two dynamic men aren’t nearly as pure as they would have us believe.
Tim LaRocco teaches political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Cambodia-based freelance journalist and English teacher.