Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday that the government will cooperate with the CNRP to review the country’s immigration laws and provide estimates of the number of Vietnamese migrants in Cambodia once the opposition’s 55 lawmakers swear into office.
Responding to comments from CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha, who said on Tuesday that his party’s lawmakers would seek a detailed review of immigration to the country, General Sopheak said Wednesday that the government was eager to assist.
“We are happy with what His Excellency Kem Sokha has said [and] are happy to cooperate, happy to work on this matter together at National Assembly,” Gen. Sopheak told the Voice of Democracy news service.
Responding to questions about the number of Vietnamese immigrants in the country, he said the government would provide Mr. Sokha with the numbers of immigrants in Cambodia, and also acknowledged that many were currently living here without immigration papers.
“The number is not stable. It doesn’t mean that the number we have is perfect and accurate, but we do have [a] basic number,” he said.
“What we have is that there are more than 100,000 [Vietnamese migrants],” he said. “We have issued letters of immigration recognition for about 10,000 people. Each one pays tax to our state for being recognized as an immigrant by the state.”
“We have issued them but some have not come to take them yet because they don’t want to pay. The payment is about 250,000 riel [about $62.50] in tax to the state for the legal immigration recognition papers,” Gen. Sopheak said.
“In brief, we will try to control for clear numbers and make them be under our immigration law,” Gen. Sopheak said of Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia. “If they come illegally, we will make them be under the law, and we cannot allow them to walk freely and disorderly.”
Gen. Sopheak could not be reached for further comment Wednesday. Sok Phal, head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, also could not be reached.
Wednesday’s comments from Gen. Sopheak followed a Tuesday night appearance on Radio Free Asia by Mr. Sokha and CNRP President Sam Rainsy to outline their agenda once they enter parliament.
Mr. Sokha had said illegal immigration would be one of the key issues the opposition party would push before the next election.
“We will ask the ministers or the Interior Ministry to collect statistics to allow for clarity about immigrants in Cambodia: Which nationalities are there, how many of them are legal and how many are illegal?” he said. “Secondly, we will push the government to apply the immigration law—we want the government to solve this problem peacefully.”
A clip of the interview was then posted to Mr. Sokha’s Facebook page with the title “Regarding immigrants in Cambodia.”
Mr. Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen on July 22 cut a deal for the opposition party’s 55 lawmakers-elect to enter the National Assembly, which they had been boycotting for 10 months claiming that the CPP-dominated election commission had rigged the July 2013 national election.
The lawmakers were set to take their seats sometime early this week. But Mr. Rainsy on Tuesday accused the CPP of deliberately stalling talks to settle the details of the July 22 deal as negotiations over election reform were adjourned until Monday.
Mr. Rainsy said Wednesday that Mr. Sokha’s remarks had been in the context of the radio call-in show about the CNRP’s plans and that immigration was in fact not a priority for the party.
“My mind is not on this topic. It is not a priority. It is not something we would put forward as an important topic,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“I would be happier if they [the CPP] attempted to cooperate on other issues, for instance to…complete procedures of how we go to the swearing-in ceremony, how we join the extraordinary meeting of the National Assembly. Then we have many topics to discuss,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen has long been accused by opposition figures such as Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha of subservience to Hanoi and encouraging illegal immigration of Vietnamese people into Cambodia.
The prime minister speaks fluent Vietnamese and was placed in power by the Vietnamese government in 1985 after having served as foreign minister following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.
During the CNRP’s demonstrations demanding he stand down last year, the CNRP often accused him of receiving continued Vietnamese support.
“Cambodia is saying ‘step down,’ the yuon is telling him to stay,” Mr. Sokha said in December, using a term for Vietnamese often considered derogatory, at a protest days before Mr. Hun Sen left for a state trip to Vietnam.
The issue has, in the past, also extended to threats from the opposition to deport ethnic Vietnamese if their party ever assumed power.
In July 1998, as secretary-general of the Son Sann Party, Mr. Sokha laid forth his party’s policy.
“If we win, we will send all the yuon to Vietnam,” he said.
Days earlier, Mr. Rainsy made the same promise while stumping for his Sam Rainsy Party. “If I win this election, I will send the yuon immigrants back,” he said.
In April this year, Mr. Rainsy released a policy paper, written in English, declaring that a CNRP regime would in fact grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, many of whose families have lived here for multiple generations, and then seek to slow immigration.