What was supposed to be a National Assembly debate on air transport in the Asean community quickly degenerated into a heated argument over semantics.
On Wednesday, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun called an opposition parliamentarian “a Bunong”—literally an ethnic minority found in Mondolkiri province, but also used in the Khmer language as a derogatory term meaning “savage” or “primitive.”
The slight resulted in 20 opposition lawmakers staging a walkout.
On Thursday, Mr. Vun attempted to defend the language he had used in Parliament to again berate Human Right’s Party (HRP) President Kem Sokha, claiming that Mr. Sokha’s interpretation of the word as a racist slur was incorrect.
“Some politicians have imbued this word with the wrong meaning, to upset people in northeastern Cambodia,” Mr. Vun told the assembled members of Parliament.
“The opposition should stop misinterpreting my words as referring to indigenous people,” Mr. Vun said.
Bunong and indigenous people were not one and the same, Mr. Vun maintained, claiming that the ethnic minority was no longer referred to as Bunong, which is an antiquated term.
According to the “Chuon Nath Khmer Dictionary,” Bunong referred to people who “did not respect the law” or were homeless, Mr. Vun said.
“The people in the Northeast are called indigenous. You should not call them Bunong,” he said, adding: “You must be careful using that word.”
While Mr. Sokha was absent from the National Assembly, SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann took the floor to object to Mr. Vun’s attempts to redirect the blame at the opposition.
“What you’ve said isn’t true,” Mr. Sovann said to Mr. Vun. “That is not the dictionary definition of Bunong. You said that word.”
During the debate on Wednesday, Mr. Sokha had addressed the assembly to condemn the government’s human rights record.
Mr. Vun had then taken to the floor and attacked Mr. Sokha, saying: “What Mr. Sokha said; he is like a Bunong or an uneducated person and it is unacceptable.”
Following Mr. Vun’s comments, members of the HRP and SRP walked out of the National Assembly in protest.