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In Cambodia, Immigrant's Death Sparks Reform Debate

Cambodian rights workers are calling on the government to reform its immigration policies following the mob beating death of a Vietnamese man.

Activists say the death of Nguyen Van Chyen, who was killed in Phnom Penh following a traffic accident last month, underscores an underlying problem of racism in Cambodia.

Some analysts say immigration reform could help reduce tensions and dampen anti-Vietnamese sentiment.

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the rights group Licado, told VOA's Khmer service he agrees that better immigration enforcement is key.

“In order to prevent problems, I think Cambodia has to strengthen law enforcement, especially in immigration law and laws on nationality,” he said. "In order to be naturalized as a Cambodian, a foreigner should be required to learn the Khmer language and understand Cambodia’s culture."

Chea Vannath, an independent analyst, told the Khmer service that the enforcement of immigration will reduce the problems.

“So, until Cambodia takes the actions, then we can control the people feeling," she said. "Meaning that [immigrants] come, no matter what nationality, they live in Cambodia legally."

One point of contention is the use of the Khmer word "yuon," which the crowd shouted ahead of Nguyen Van Chyen's beating death. Am Sam Ath said the word is customary, though not necessarily racist.

Not everyone agrees, with many saying the word is a slur for Vietnamese people.

The distinction is important, said Keat Chantharith, a spokesman for the national police and a ruling party supporter, because the word is used by leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

He accuses Sam Rainsy's party of using the word to stoke anti-Vietnamese sentiment for political gain.

“In fact, immigration police and the national police are trying hard to fulfill their work in immigration,” he said. “They have pushed law enforcement, registration work and management work for immigrants.”

Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Rescue Party, denies the allegations, saying the opposition is merely pushing for better immigration enforcement and does not endorse violence.

“The CPP has not taken action on the issues and has been indulgent,” he said.

Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and began a decade-long occupation of the country. There have been sporadic reports of violence against Vietnamese in Cambodia in the past two decades.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.

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