The opposition CNRP said on Tuesday it was preparing to submit complaints to the National Election Committee (NEC) about almost 5,000 Vietnamese voters it says were registered to vote without citizenship, a move criticized as continuing the party’s tradition of populist Vietnam-bashing.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, however, railed against such a characterization, saying the issue was a matter of principle and that the CNRP had been wrongly stereotyped as anti-Vietnamese due to “ignorant or inexperienced foreigners.”
A two-week window following the release of a provisional voter list earlier this month allows parties and monitors to file complaints with the elections body over any perceived irregularities.
The CNRP’s head of electoral and legislative affairs, Meng Sopheary, said the party was in the process of asking local authorities to strike off the names of foreigners. In provinces where its requests are denied, the party will elevate those complaints to the NEC, Ms. Sopheary said.
“Our observers have noticed that there are 4,893 foreigners who registered. Most of them are Vietnamese,” Ms. Sopheary said, adding that the irregularities were picked up by the party’s monitors during a three-month registration period from September through November.
“We are not sure they have legally received Khmer citizenship,” she said. “Firstly, they couldn’t speak well. Secondly, they knew the local authorities,” making it more likely they could have conspired to circumvent the law, she said.
Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan said the CNRP’s complaints amounted to “racial discrimination.”
“Whoever has an ID card, the NEC will allow them to register, because the NEC doesn’t evaluate if you might be French, Chinese or Vietnamese,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the CNRP was following a recurring pattern: “One, they accuse the Cambodian government of being a puppet of Vietnam. Two, they raise that Vietnamese have been registered for voting.”
The opposition is trying to tap into the “nationalistic sentiment of Cambodian people,” Mr. Siphan said, adding that he believed “problems in leadership” would ultimately undermine the CNRP’s populist campaigns.
Meas Ny, an independent political analyst, said focusing on issues that put the spotlight on problems related to Vietnamese people was part of the “CNRP culture.”
“It works for them in a way,” Mr. Ny said, noting that many people in Cambodia maintain a negative view of Cambodia-Vietnam relations, including fears over Vietnamese immigration.
“In a way, what the CNRP has been doing is according to the law because migration policy has not been strongly enforced, so normally people can get in.”
While the government roundly rejects claims that it is somehow subservient to Hanoi, which put CPP leaders in power after toppling the Khmer Rouge, it remains highly sensitive to related issues and accusations.
Earlier this week, Mr. Rainsy leaked a statement that was supposedly sent to the party’s vice president, Kem Sokha, by the CPP to be signed in exchange for the release of jailed rights workers. The statement would have seen Mr. Sokha condemn and threaten to expel any CNRP members who accused Prime Minister Hun Sen’s oldest son, Hun Manet, of being the biological son of first lady Bun Rany and a Vietnamese general.
Over the weekend, as the ruling party marked 38 years since the “liberation” of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces, Mr. Rainsy posted a cartoon on Facebook along with a message playing up a history of Vietnamese interference in Cambodian politics.
Asked on Tuesday about the opposition party’s continued focus on supposed Vietnamese meddling, Mr. Rainsy said the voter complaints were “a matter of principle when it comes to the rule of law, regardless of the nationality.”
“This question of yours pertains to the same stereotyped trait wrongly attributed to the opposition CNRP by a group of ill-informed or manipulated foreign journalists or observers who groundlessly accuse my party of racist inclinations against the Vietnamese,” he said in an email.
“Some ignorant or inexperienced foreigners, when assessing the meaning of a specific Khmer word in a specific political environment, are not able to make the difference between ‘offensive’ and ‘politically incorrect,’” Mr. Rainsy said, referring to controversy around the use of the word “Yuon,” a term for Vietnamese people that can be derogatory.
“Please make this clear to readers of The Cambodia Daily to prevent them from being involved in a regrettable misunderstanding,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Michael Dickison and Colin Meyn)