Two days after Prime Minister Hun Sen told the U.N.’s new special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia to focus her efforts on tackling racial discrimination, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha on Thursday used a Cham Muslim religious ceremony to argue that there is no racism in the country.
Speaking at a ceremony for the Islamic observance of Hari Raya Haji in Kompong Chhnang province’s Kompong Tralach district, Mr. Sokha said that Khmer people had always been accepting of other ethnic groups.
“In general, I have noticed that Khmer people in our Khmer country are not racially or religiously discriminatory,” Mr. Sokha said at the ceremony. “The Khmer have never discriminated on race. Isn’t that right, brothers and sisters?”
“We also do not discriminate against other nationalities; we do not discriminate against Vietnam and the Yuon, [because] the Khmer is a gentle human being,” he said, although he used a term for the Vietnamese that some consider derogatory.
“Anybody who says Khmer have racial discrimination are wrong,” he added. “We strongly oppose racial discrimination, but we should protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that he believed Mr. Sokha was attempting to rework his image after a political career built on exploiting suspicions about Vietnamese influence and immigrants in Cambodia.
Mr. Siphan said that even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Ou Virak, Mr. Sokha’s successor as director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), had called on Mr. Sokha and the CNRP to drop their racial themes.
“We have learned from a number of Kem Sokha’s statements against Vietnamese. It’s not only the CPP who has learned, but Ou Virak, the international community, and Ban Ki-moon has asked him not to be racist,” Mr. Siphan said.
“He’s a big liar, my friend. He’s just a big liar and that’s all. The international community has accused him of racism and even Ban Ki-moon accused him, and now it’s damage control.”
“Cambodians are very nice and accepting people, except for Kem Sokha and [CNRP President] Sam Rainsy,” he added.
Like other opposition figures, Mr. Sokha has a history of using Vietnamese immigration and territorial violations as a way to attack the CPP, which started out in 1979 as the regime installed by the Vietnamese after the Khmer Rouge.
“If we win, we will send all the Yuon to Vietnam,” Mr. Sokha said while campaigning in Takeo province during the 1998 national election, when he was a lawmaker for a splinter group of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party.
In December 2005, Mr. Sokha was imprisoned after Prime Minister Hun Sen accused him of defamation over a banner that was hoisted behind Mr. Sokha at a CCHR rally alleging that Mr. Hun Sen had sold territory to Vietnam.
More recently, the CNRP vice president claimed in a speech during the 2013 national election that the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, which oversaw the killing of more than 12,000 people, was a Vietnamese fabrication.
Mr. Rainsy, who also has frequently used anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and who sat alongside Mr. Sokha on Thursday, said he believed it was accurate to say Cambodians are tolerant of other ethnicities, even if they are often mistrustful.
“If you compare what has happened in Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh, there have been very few incidents here whatsoever. The level of violence is very high but it rarely, if ever, affects people because of racial discrimination,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“The Cambodian people may be violent among themselves, but on the whole racial incidents are very few.”
However, he defended the use of rhetoric against illegal Vietnamese immigration, explaining that the movement of Vietnamese to present-day southern Vietnam was the reason Cambodia lost the area.
“It is a legitimate concern for Cambodians, who can see the future of their country when there is a demographic imbalance caused by illegal immigration,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“Why are Tibetans concerned they will be outnumbered by the Chinese that the Chinese government sends there? They are not racist, they have legitimate concerns that Tibet could be diluted and swallowed into the mass of the Chinese people.”
“What Israel is doing now is also the de facto colonization of Palestine,” he added. “Can you say the Palestinians are racist? No—they have legitimate concerns that they are losing land because other people are sending settlers.”
“You have to look back over a period of at least 400 years, when Cambodia began to lose territory due to a demographic imbalance. [Vietnam] sent settlers little by little, and different areas of Cambodia were annexed due to this, little by little,” he said.
Mr. Virak, the former CCHR director who today runs the Future Forum consultancy, said he believed Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy had made some attempts to forgo racism when raising legitimate concerns like illegal immigration.
“They appear to be addressing the criticism of some people like myself and the U.N. to try to be seen as more democratic, pushing for change and human rights, but it is a challenge for them, because they have gotten popularity and financial support from nationalist issues,” Mr. Virak said.
Yet Mr. Virak said that if the pair wanted to extinguish accusations of racism when they raise such policy concerns, they should not use the term “Yuon,” which some consider unsavory.
“First of all, stop being racist. Then you can address illegal immigration without appearing racist,” he said. “Yes, the neighboring countries have taken a lot of land, and there was the 1980s occupation, but you can address it without racism.”