PHNOM PENH: Anti-Vietnamese sentiment is expected to run high in Cambodia as elections approach, with political parties likely to use nationalistic rhetoric as a vote-winning tool.
In a few months, commune council elections will take place and next year, a general election is due, which could put pressure on Cambodia’s racial equilibrium.
"Marginalised ethnic Vietnamese could easily become a convenient political football in the coming elections. The opposition has already started playing the anti-Vietnam card, appealing to widespread anti-Vietnamese sentiment in the country," said John Coughlan, a researcher on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from Amnesty International.
"Marginalised ethnic Vietnamese could easily become a convenient political football in the coming elections." (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
In January, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed nearly 2,500 foreign nationals, mostly Vietnamese, had unlawfully registered to vote in the upcoming polls. It demanded their names be removed from the provisional voters list but later met with rejection from the National Election Committee due to a lack of "legitimate evidence”.
The move seemed consistent with one of the CNRP's main drawcards - its populist anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. As its popularity continues to grow among the electorate, Coughlan said the stakes in the upcoming elections will be higher than ever.
"The ruling party knows how deep this antipathy runs and could make a show of deporting marginalised Vietnamese living along the border areas as a means to avoid losing a critical mass of support to the opposition."
The growing presence of ethnic Vietnamese people is a cause for concern for many Cambodians. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
Vietnamese migrants are a cause for concern for many Cambodians. Their growing presence is often associated with uncontrolled immigration, shrinking resources and Vietnam's expansion of power, seen by some as a silent invasion.
Such concerns come as a steady flow of immigrants from Vietnam arrives in Cambodia. Between 2010 and 2014, the Cambodian Immigration Department recorded more than 160,000 Vietnamese migrants living in the country. Last year, the government’s campaign against illegal migrants resulted in more than 2,400 people being deported back to Vietnam, with more than 6,000 sent back in 2015.
Despite the anti-Vietnamese sentiment, the government under Prime Minister Hun Sen is seen by many as having close ties to Hanoi, which influenced his rise to power in the 1980s. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is regarded by some as Vietnam’s puppet and their policies pro-Vietnamese.
More than 2,400 migrants were deported to Vietnam in 2016. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
But with the elections around the corner, politicians from all parties are expected to ramp up the anti-Vietnamese sentiment.
“Much of this anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is directed primarily at illegal migrants, but many people fail to recognise the distinction between illegal migrants and the stateless Vietnamese who are entitled to Khmer citizenship,” said Minority Rights Organization (MIRO), a non-governmental organisation advocating rights and interests of ethnic minority groups in Cambodia.
FLOATING IN FEAR
Despite their prominent role in the political discourse, many ethnic Vietnamese residents have no right to vote in Cambodia.
A large number of them are long-term residents and survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the late 1970s, who fled to Vietnam and returned. These are people who were born and raised in Cambodia, where their families have resided for generations, but are now stateless without birth registration documents.
Most ethnic Vietnamese living on Tonle Sap fish for a living. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
Their status does not only deprive them of voting rights, but also bars them from land ownership and social services such as education and healthcare. That situation is predominant in floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, where racial discrimination is practised and eviction is a constant fear.
“Since 2015, almost 3,000 people have already gone to Vietnam. Things are quiet now but I think before the general election, the authorities will try to move us again,” said Nguyen Tang Thong, an ethnic Vietnamese from Koh Krobei village on Tonle Sap in Kampong Chhnang.
In 2015, local authorities evicted about 1,000 families floating on the lake near the provincial town, citing a five-year master plan to improve the province and its polluted riverfront. Most of the affected families were Vietnamese.
"I think before the general election, the authorities will try to move us again." (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
“They said if we stayed there, it’d cause pollution. They also promised to build a new market for us. Two years later, we still have nothing,” Nguyen said. His new home now floats in a crowded community much further down the lake, where villagers - mostly fishermen - are cut off from the provincial town and main fish market.
For Nguyen, a new life in a new village is harder and much more expensive. The father of seven earns US$5 per day from fishing but half of the income goes to his daily commute to and from the fish market. Like other ethnic Vietnamese on Tonle Sap, he lives with the fear that the authorities will keep marginalising them in the country they call home.
Floating villages on Tonle Sap are predominantly inhabited by ethnic Vietnamese. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
Concerns are spreading across Vietnamese communities over possible evictions in the near future. If it happens and they have not found a new place to live by then, a move to Vietnam will be their only option.
“They’re going to push us to Vietnam, not just those in Kampong Chhnang but other ethnic Vietnamese living across Tonle Sap too. I don’t have money to buy the land so I’ll have to go to Vietnam. Many people will,” Nguyen said.
As Cambodia counts down to the elections, the anti-Vietnamese sentiment may grow.
"In such circumstances, it is sadly all too easy to envisage a situation where marginalised Vietnamese become bargaining chips for political popularity," Coughlan said.
Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA