Thursday, February 16, 2017

A human rights activist is slain in Cambodia, and the mystery leads all the way to California
Cambodia’s most shocking killing in years happened in broad daylight, on a muggy July morning, just as its capital city was stirring to life. 
Kem Ley, a famous political pundit, walked into a convenience store at a Caltex gas station just before 9 a.m. and ordered an iced latte. A man approached, carrying a semi-automatic pistol. He shot Kem twice — once in the head, execution-style.
The suspect, Oueth Ang, 43, walked away calmly down the city’s crowded streets, past languid snack sellers, low-slung French colonial homes and motor scooters jostling like schools of fish. About a half-hour later, SWAT police arrested him.
Later, he confessed to killing Kem over a $3,000 debt. A Cambodian court charged him with premeditated murder. Authorities considered the case cut-and-dried.
But questions lingered about why Oueth shot Kem, and if anyone put him up to it. And the ensuing fallout — involving massive protests, a dictator, a secret video file, a U.S. oil company, and a law firm in San Francisco — has upped the stakes for Cambodia’s small human rights community.

Kem — a crusader whose causes included illegal logging, corruption and sovereignty issues on the Cambodia-Vietnam border — was a widely beloved public figure. On July 24, two weeks after the killing, tens of thousands of Cambodians gathered for his funeral. A sea of mourners surged down Phnom Penh’s broad boulevards, carrying Kem in a glass coffin covered in flowers. Many wept; some marched the entire 50 miles to his hometown in Takeo province, where they laid his body to rest.
The march was as much a repudiation of Cambodia’s prime minister as it was a tribute to Kem. Hun Sen, a 61-year-old strongman, has ruled the country for 31 years, making him among the world’s longest-serving rulers.
Hun wields almost total control over the country’s police force, military, major media and courts — and Kem criticized him relentlessly, casting him as a corrupt despot.

Hun called the killing a "savage act,” and promised an investigation. But Kem’s supporters were suspicious.
Hun’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has been accused of assassinating opponents, then manipulating the investigations of their deaths. And some details from the shooting cried out for further inspection — witnesses claimed that a police vehicle pulled up to the gas station that morning, lingered briefly and departed just before the shooting. They claimed that Oueth attempted to jump on a police motorbike before walking away. 
The truth may lie on the Caltex station’s surveillance video. Kem’s supporters have repeatedly lobbied authorities to release the video files, to no avail.  
Then in December, they received an unexpected shot of hope. 
Caltex is owned by Chevron, the San Ramon, Calif.-based energy giant. A boutique law firm in San Francisco, BraunHagey & Borden, suspected that Chevron still had the files — and that it could force the company to release them.
One of the firm’s lawyers who had worked on human rights issues in Cambodia was disturbed by the killing, and thought the firm could inject some fairness into the case. On Dec. 13, its lawyers filed a suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
“I feel these are times when the 1st Amendment, the freedom of the press and the freedom to dissent — to speak your mind — are more important internationally, and I think law firms should be standing up for that,” said Matthew Borden, a partner at the firm.  
On Dec. 23, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court closed its investigation into Kem’s death. This week, the California lawsuit took a major step forward.

Kem was born to a family of farmers in an impoverished, rice-growing village a half-day’s drive from Phnom Penh. His mother, Pok Sin, 78, described him as a smart but quiet child. “He never said anything about wanting to be famous or influential,” she said. He studied medicine in Thailand and Malaysia, and after graduation, worked as a public health researcher for international nonprofit organizations.
In 2013, everything changed. Hun won election to his fifth term as prime minister. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party came close; its leaders alleged mass voter fraud, and refused to accept the outcome. Protests erupted, and in January 2014 the government cracked down, resulting in four deaths.
The events enraged and emboldened Kem. He began to travel widely, spending his nights with rural families, and appearing on radio and television to air their grievances. He campaigned against illegal logging, pollution, corruption, inequality and land grabs. He founded an independent political party, the Grassroots Democracy Party, which planned to field candidates for local elections in 2017.
“He was pretty much like a man with eight arms,” said Virak Ou, a Phnom Penh-based human rights activist and friend of Kem’s. “He seemed to be everywhere. And that was one of his strengths.”
Kem’s organizing was dangerous, and he knew it. Many Cambodians believe, despite a lack of conclusive evidence, that the CPP has at least played a role in the deaths of its fiercest critics. In 2004, Chea Vichea, an influential union leader, was shot to death; in 2012, Chut Wutty, an environmental activist, was gunned down near a protected forest. Their killers were never brought to justice.
Kem’s final radio interview may have been the last straw to his most violent opponents. On July 9, he appeared on Radio Free Asia to discuss a Global Witness report that claimed Hun’s family members had amassed a fortune worth at least $200 million.
Kem spent his last days living in fear, according to Buth Bunteng, a Buddhist monk and anti-illegal logging activist. Buth recalled meeting Kem at a cafe on July 7, three days before the killing.
“Before then, he thought he would be arrested,” he said. “On the 7th, he thought he would be killed. He was afraid. His facial appearance changed. His behavior changed on that evening. He looked so sad.”
After the killing, journalists visited the gunman’s rural hometown on Cambodia’s western border and heard that he was a former soldier and inveterate gambler. Voice of America reported that Oeuth likely didn’t have $3,000 to lend Kem; the Cambodia Daily, citing Oeuth’s family and friends, reported that he had “never even uttered Kem Ley’s name.” He had vanished from his village 10 days before the shooting. 
After Oeuth was arrested, he gave an unusual nickname to police: “Chuop Samlap,” Khmer for ”meet to kill.” Oeuth’s trial is scheduled to begin March 1. 

The case could hinge on something called a “Section 1782 discovery” — a simple U.S. statute with complex implications. 
It stipulates that if an American company is involved in a legal proceeding outside the U.S. — say, a trial in Cambodia — a litigant can apply to an American court for evidence that could be used in that proceeding.
BraunHagey & Borden’s lawyers considered the statute, and saw an opportunity.
Hours after Kem’s killing, Sam Rainsy, head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, had called the death an “act of state-sponsored terrorism,” with parallels to the killings of Chea and Chut. In August, Hun’s government sued Rainsy for defamation; he went into exile in France.
Also, in October 2014, a group of Cambodian citizens brought a case to the International Criminal Court, accusing Cambodian officials of crimes against humanity.
Chevron’s surveillance video was relevant to both cases, and BraunHagey & Borden filed the discovery request for the video, along with other materials, on behalf of both Rainsy and the Cambodians in the ICC case.
The energy giant itself had used Section 1782 before in an environmental case in Ecuador. “We’re basically using it in all the ways that Chevron has used it,” Borden said.
Chevron has not yet filed any responses in court, but maintains that there’s no point in suing for the video. A spokesman, Gareth Johnstone, said the gas station’s “digital video recorder, along with the footage it contained, was removed by the police shortly following the incident.” He did not offer further details. 
The law firm is skeptical. Eva Scheuller, an associate attorney at the firm, said it seemed “somewhat implausible” that the digital files were not backed up.
On Thursday, the court granted the firm’s request, allowing Chevron 30 days to object. Judge Donna M. Ryu wrote that the request for the files “does not appear to be unduly burdensome.”
The Cambodian government has repeatedly denied having a role in Kem’s death. “I think there’s speculation, and that’s the right of the people,” said CPP spokesman Sok Eysan. “But as a government ruling party we don’t want such incidents to happen.” He blamed the opposition party for stirring up resentment and denied that Hun would interfere in the country’s courts.
Yet the killing has cast a chill over Cambodia’s human rights community. Kem’s wife and five sons have fled to Thailand; they are applying for asylum in Australia.
Chum Houth and Chum Houth, 27, prominent environmental activists who are identical twins with identical names, said they now fear for their lives.
“Many [aid] workers have told us to wear helmets and masks over our faces whenever we go out,” said one of the twins. “But I said no, that would make me not a Cambodian citizen.”
“We don't know who is an enemy, and who is a friend,” added his brother.
On a rainy afternoon in November, Pok Sin, Kem’s mother, sat on a damp wooden platform outside of the family’s home, receiving busloads of guests — weathered farmers, coiffed office workers, Buddhist monks in flowing orange robes. They bowed deeply, then snapped photos by Kem's coffin, their expressions defiant but darkened by grief.
“Kem Ley wrote something on his Facebook before he died about brave people who stood up to government pressure,” said one visitor, Bov Sorphea, 38, who has protested land seizures near her home in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak area. “Whenever we went to jail, when we got out, he was there to support us.”
As Bov left, another bus pulled up, and Pok watched the new round of visitors quietly approach.

MOFA mum on Hun Sen’s flag remarks

‘ONE CHINA’:Lawmakers said the Cambodian leader’s comments might have been due to pressure from China, but the ministry’s spokeswoman was more circumspect

By Alison Hsiao and Chen Wei-han  /  Staff reporters, with CNA

The government has no comment on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s remarks that the Republic of China’s (ROC) flag is banned from being raised in his country to “respect the sovereignty of China,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokeswoman Eleanor Wang (王珮玲) said yesterday.
According to the Cambodian Daily, Hun Sen reiterated his government’s support for Beijing’s “one China” principle during a dinner on Saturday hosted by the Cambodian-Chinese Association.
“We should not do anything that affects respect for China’s sovereignty and independence through shaking hands and stepping on feet,” the paper quoted him as saying. “I request to people here: Please do not raise the Taiwanese flag whenever you are gathering, even at a hotel during Taiwan’s national holidays. It is not allowed.”
Calling Taiwan and Tibet provinces of China, Hun Sen said that his nation’s foreign policy is the one that has been implemented since the Sihanouk regime, referring to King Norodom Sihanouk.
“As an independent, sovereign nation, we endeavor to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and are willing to establish a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship with any country in the region, including Cambodia,” Wang said.
The Cambodia Daily also reported that Taiwan tried to establish a trade office in Phnom Penh, but was snubbed by Hun Sen in 2009 and again in July 2014, citing the government’s adherence to the “one China” principle.
Wang declined to say if the government had tried to set up an office, but said that it is “not possible for the ministry to set up a representative office or trade office in every country around the world.”
“Jurisdictions” have been drawn up instead, and affairs with Cambodia are handled by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Ho Chih Minh City, Vietnam, she said.
Asked if Hun Sen’s comments would have a negative impact on the government’s “new southbound policy,” Wang said: “No comment.”
The Cambodian leader’s remarks were based on “his own thoughts and calculations,” Wang added.
However, lawmakers said Hun Sen’s remarks might be a sign of increasingly aggressive Chinese diplomatic moves against Taiwan in Southeast Asia.
“From the Nigeria incident to the Cambodian prime minister’s remarks, there has been a noticeable escalation of China’s efforts to turn its diplomatic allies against Taiwan,” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政) said.
Nigeria last month said it would cease all diplomatic relations with Taiwan in accordance with the “one China” principle.
China was presumably behind Hun Sen’s reiteration of the ban on the ROC flag, but Beijing need not and should not launch another “diplomatic war” against Taipei, which would only hurt cross-strait relations, Lo said.
DPP Legislator Gao Jyh-peng (高志鵬) said that while Hun Sen’s comments might reflect his own choice to submit to Beijing, other ASEAN states where Taiwanese businesses have a strong presence might also be subject to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) caucus convener Sufin Siluko (廖國棟) said Hun Sen’s remarks must reflect a demand from Beijing, as Cambodia has always been close to China.
“The two sides of the Taiwan Strait should come up with a new way to handling things like this,” he said.
“The Chinese government should relax a bit and try not to be so tense and demanding, considering that the people on both sides of the Strait are ethnic Chinese,” the KMT lawmaker said.

Cambodia promises harsher drug crackdown as arrests soar

Reuters  Posted at Feb 08 2017 08:53 PM

PHNOM PENH - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged on Wednesday to intensify a campaign against drugs after the arrest of more than 2,400 people for drug-related offences in a month.
The campaign since January in the Southeast Asian country has drawn parallels with the drug crackdown in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, but Hun Sen said that in Cambodia it would not lead to bloodshed.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in the Philippines in the seven month-old drug war under Duterte.
"In the Philippines and other countries, they ordered for the killings of people right on the spot," Hun Sen told a ceremony at a pagoda. "Cambodia won't allow this to happen."
Over the past month, 2,428 people have been arrested in Cambodia for drug-related offences, with 1,243 arrested for using drugs, according to official data. In the whole of last year, 9,800 people were arrested in drug cases.
Hun Sen appealed to the public for help with the campaign, saying that parents with children who are addicted to drugs should keep them at home.
"The issue here is whether you must have your children in prison or educate them not to use drugs," Hun Sen said. "The good choice is that parents must control their children well."
Police in the Philippines have suspended anti-narcotics operations, saying they must first root out police corruption after the kidnap and killing of a South Korean businessman by drug squad officers.


Sovantha ups damage claim against Rainsy

8 Feb, 2017 Lay Samean

Social media starlet Thy Sovantha, who is currently suing
opposition leader Sam Rainsy, speaks to the press
outside the Phnom Penh court yesterday. Hong Menea

Social media personality Thy Sovantha yesterday upped her claim for damages in the defamation suit she’s bringing against Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy.
The former opposition supporter-turned-vocal CNRP critic said she now wants $500,000 from the exiled politician, up from the initial request of $250,000 made on January 14.
Her lawyer, Ly Chantola, said the claim was increased because fallout has continued online from the alleged defamatory remarks, while Rainsy has not backed down.
“We have been monitoring Facebook posts and videos about the words Sam Rainsy said, and it continues,” Chantola said.
The 21-year-old sued Rainsy for alleging she took a $1 million bribe from Prime Minister Hun Sen to attack the opposition.
The premier also filed a defamation action over the comments just a day after Sovantha, requesting $1 million in damages, a judgment he said would force Rainsy to sell CNRP headquarters to fulfil.
Speaking outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday, Sovantha balked at questions about whether someone was directing her actions. “If he did not defame me, I could not file a lawsuit, so we don’t need to create rumours about who is behind my lawsuit,” she said.
Rainsy’s accusation stems from text messages leaked online purporting to show Sovantha corresponding with Hun Sen. Another set of leaked messages suggested the premier’s son Hun Manith, head of military intelligence, also colluded with the social media personality.
Sovantha reiterated her denial that the leaks were genuine. “I’ve already explained that that case is not true,” she said, adding she had requested the Interior Ministry investigate the hacking of her Facebook account, on which the messages appeared.
Rainsy’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, said it was too early to worry about compensation as the investigation was ongoing.

LDP supporters jailed over Kampot dispute

6 Feb, 2017 Niem Chheng
League of Democratic Party members protest in Kampot demanding
to release the 13 members that were arrested for allegedly
encroaching Bokor National Park's land. Photo supplied.

Hundreds of activists with the League for Democracy Party protested outside Kampot Provincial Hall yesterday demanding the release of 13 supporters of the group arrested over a land dispute in Chhouk district’s Decho Aphivat commune.
The 13 were detained on Saturday, though there is disagreement between authorities and LDP members about the circumstances surrounding the case. Kampot Provincial Governor Sim Vuthea said authorities had received several complaints accusing the group of clearing land in Bokor National Park and harassing villagers within a social land concession.
“We arrested suspects who threatened villagers and occupied state land. They cleared land, set fire to the forest, so we used our forces to stop them.” he said yesterday. “We are looking for those behind this; most of them are from Phnom Penh.”
While about 250 people demonstrated in the commune in support of the arrests, LDP president Khem Veasna yesterday told supporters in town the group was wrongly detained.
“All in all, the arrest was done without any evidence,” said Veasna, whose voice was soon drowned out by police playing music over loudspeakers. “The arrest was far from the scene, and they arrested only onlookers. The one who committed the wrongdoing already fled.”
Veasna said the dispute, in fact, related to a disagreement between LDP supporter Ly Kimhong and his cousin over a quarter hectare of farmland. He said the cousin’s sister, via a contact at the provincial hall, filed a complaint, which prompted authorities to take action.
Kampot police chief Mao Chanmathurith said the 13 would face court today.

Hun Sen bans Taiwanese, Tibetan flags in Cambodia
5 Feb 2017 at 12:01   WRITER: KYODO NEWS

PHNOM PENH - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that his government will not allow Taiwanese and Tibetan flags to be raised in Cambodia.
Speaking at a friendly dinner with the Cambodian-Chinese Association on Saturday, Hun Sen described Taiwan as simply a province of China, and that the flags of Taiwan and Tibet cannot be raised in Cambodia.
"We shall not do anything that harms the sovereignty and independence of China because of Taiwan," he said, adding that China respects the sovereignty and independence of Cambodia and thus Cambodia must do the same to China.
The premier, however, said that for commercial and trading purpose, Taiwanese activities are welcomed, but not political or diplomatic activities.
Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 32 years since 1985, has become known as one of the region's strongest supporters of China.
China, meanwhile, has become the biggest source of investments and financial support for Cambodia's infrastructure and economic development.
Taiwan, while independently ruled, is regarded by China as a breakaway province. Tibet, meanwhile, is an autonomous province of China which has been the subject of a strong independence movement.

Hun Sen: Go easy on Myanmar
4 Feb 2017 at 16:13 WRITER: KYODO NEWS

PHNOM PENH: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen does not agree with the international focus being placed on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, saying it should be an internal issue for Myanmar alone, a senior minister said on Saturday.
"We do not agree with the internationalisation of the Rohingya issue, and according to the Asean Charter, no member has the right to interfere in the sovereignty of other member states," Information Minister Khieu Kanharithth quoted the premier as saying during a meeting with Myanmar President Htin Kyaw.
The issue of the persecution of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has drawn considerable attention, especially from international rights watchdogs and other countries.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been an outspoken critic of Myanmar's handling of the Rohingya, and maintains that Asean has an obligation to speak out. However, some of his critics say his stand has more to do with shoring up his sagging political credibility among Muslims in his own country.
A report released Friday by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said crimes against humanity have potentially been committed against Rohingya in Myanmar's conflict-riddled Rakhine State.
The report was based on interviews with people who recently fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, and found the majority had witnessed killings and many had family members who had been killed or were missing.
Myanmar does not class the Rohingya as citizens, and has maintained that such reports are fabrications, while preventing media and international observers from accessing Rakhine.
Htin Kyaw began a four-day state visit to Cambodia on Friday. During his meeting with Hun Sen, Htin Kyaw congratulated Cambodia for its economic growth and development, and requested leadership advice from the Cambodian premier, who has been in power since 1985.
Htin Kyaw told Hun Sen that he had only been office since last year, and therefore required leadership experience from the Cambodian side.
Both leaders also discussed strengthening diplomacy, education, trade, and tourism, according to Ieng Sophalette, spokesman for Hun Sen.
Before returning to Myanmar on Monday, Htin Kyaw and his wife will spend two nights in Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat temple complex.

Hun Sen mulls rules to dissolve parties for individual’s wrongdoing

3 Feb, 2017 Lay Samean and Ananth Baliga

Sam Rainsy (left) and Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands after sealing
a deal to end a yearlong parliamentary boycott in 2014. Heng Chivoan

Drawing inspiration from now-defunct articles of the Thai constitution, Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday he was looking to introduce punitive measures that would dissolve political parties for any wrongdoing committed by individual members.
During a marathon speech at a graduation ceremony on Koh Pich, Hun Sen said he wanted to amend the 1997 Law on Political Parties, asking relevant government officials to hastily convene a meeting yesterday and deliberate changes that would punish an errant party’s leadership and “teach them a lesson”.
“I think that we should follow Thailand. If one has committed a serious crime, the party must be dissolved so that the one will not be so troublesome anymore,” he said.
Hun Sen was referring to Thailand’s 2007 constitution, which was voided after the 2014 coup. That document stipulates that if a member of a political party commits an illegal act, and there is proof that the party’s executive committee was aware, the party is to be dissolved and all committee members banned from politics for five years.
Hun Sen also reiterated a desire to introduce restrictions on convicted individuals from holding any party posts, a thinly veiled reference to exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy that he first floated in a speech on Tuesday.
“I am not kidding, I will do it. Look at it and then make the decision [at the meeting],” he said. “After that, make a petition and propose it to the National Assembly.”
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan confirmed that a meeting was underway yesterday evening, adding that government lawyers, representatives from the ministries of justice and interior, as well as the Constitutional Council were looking into Hun Sen’s request.
“If we think about the time, it has been 20 years [since the 1997 Law on Political Parties was passed],” he said. “There are problems that happened recently, so we need to include the recent the problems into the meaning of the law for it to be effective.”
Eysan denied that the amendments were solely directed at Sam Rainsy and the opposition, saying it was applicable to all political parties. “He [Rainsy] is guilty, but the change of the law is not solely for him, but for other directors or deputy directors of parties,” he said.
CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said he expected the Cambodian public to see the move for what it was, and that the premier was free to do whatever he pleased. “There is no point in worrying. In short, it is useless, because we can do nothing to prevent it,” he said.
Chhay Eang added that if the amendments were to be made to the Political Party Law, it would only be a “backward step” for Cambodian democracy.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, said that if the prime minister introduced legislation similar to Thailand’s “rotten apple” law, the “days of real democracy in Cambodia” would be numbered.
“Every day it appears that the way that Hun Sen intends to win the 2018 elections is by intimidation and abuses designed to clear the field of any challengers before the election campaign even starts,” he said.
In the past 12 months, five members of the CNRP – Rainsy, Um Sam Ath, Hong Sok Hour, Thak Lany and Kem Sokha – have been convicted, with Robertson maintaining the premier’s proposed changes were directed directly at the CNRP.
“Quite clearly, Hun Sen’s take away from the 2013 election was to leave nothing to chance next time around, and in his world view that apparently means using the laws to obliterate the opposition,” he said.

Anti-Vietnamese sentiment likely to run high
ahead of Cambodian elections
By Pichayada Promchertchoo Posted 02 Feb 2017 09:09 Updated 03 Feb 2017 00:11

PHNOM PENH: Anti-Vietnamese sentiment is expected to run high in Cambodia as elections approach, with political parties likely to use nationalistic rhetoric as a vote-winning tool.
In a few months, commune council elections will take place and next year, a general election is due, which could put pressure on Cambodia’s racial equilibrium.
"Marginalised ethnic Vietnamese could easily become a convenient political football in the coming elections. The opposition has already started playing the anti-Vietnam card, appealing to widespread anti-Vietnamese sentiment in the country," said John Coughlan, a researcher on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from Amnesty International.

In January, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed nearly 2,500 foreign nationals, mostly Vietnamese, had unlawfully registered to vote in the upcoming polls. It demanded their names be removed from the provisional voters list but later met with rejection from the National Election Committee due to a lack of "legitimate evidence”.
The move seemed consistent with one of the CNRP's main drawcards - its populist anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. As its popularity continues to grow among the electorate, Coughlan said the stakes in the upcoming elections will be higher than ever.
"The ruling party knows how deep this antipathy runs and could make a show of deporting marginalised Vietnamese living along the border areas as a means to avoid losing a critical mass of support to the opposition."

Vietnamese migrants are a cause for concern for many Cambodians. Their growing presence is often associated with uncontrolled immigration, shrinking resources and Vietnam's expansion of power, seen by some as a silent invasion.
Such concerns come as a steady flow of immigrants from Vietnam arrives in Cambodia. Between 2010 and 2014, the Cambodian Immigration Department recorded more than 160,000 Vietnamese migrants living in the country. Last year, the government’s campaign against illegal migrants resulted in more than 2,400 people being deported back to Vietnam, with more than 6,000 sent back in 2015.
Despite the anti-Vietnamese sentiment, the government under Prime Minister Hun Sen is seen by many as having close ties to Hanoi, which influenced his rise to power in the 1980s. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is regarded by some as Vietnam’s puppet and their policies pro-Vietnamese.

But with the elections around the corner, politicians from all parties are expected to ramp up the anti-Vietnamese sentiment.
“Much of this anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is directed primarily at illegal migrants, but many people fail to recognise the distinction between illegal migrants and the stateless Vietnamese who are entitled to Khmer citizenship,” said Minority Rights Organization (MIRO), a non-governmental organisation advocating rights and interests of ethnic minority groups in Cambodia.
Despite their prominent role in the political discourse, many ethnic Vietnamese residents have no right to vote in Cambodia.
A large number of them are long-term residents and survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the late 1970s, who fled to Vietnam and returned. These are people who were born and raised in Cambodia, where their families have resided for generations, but are now stateless without birth registration documents.

Their status does not only deprive them of voting rights, but also bars them from land ownership and social services such as education and healthcare. That situation is predominant in floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, where racial discrimination is practised and eviction is a constant fear.
“Since 2015, almost 3,000 people have already gone to Vietnam. Things are quiet now but I think before the general election, the authorities will try to move us again,” said Nguyen Tang Thong, an ethnic Vietnamese from Koh Krobei village on Tonle Sap in Kampong Chhnang.
In 2015, local authorities evicted about 1,000 families floating on the lake near the provincial town, citing a five-year master plan to improve the province and its polluted riverfront. Most of the affected families were Vietnamese.

“They said if we stayed there, it’d cause pollution. They also promised to build a new market for us. Two years later, we still have nothing,” Nguyen said. His new home now floats in a crowded community much further down the lake, where villagers - mostly fishermen - are cut off from the provincial town and main fish market.
For Nguyen, a new life in a new village is harder and much more expensive. The father of seven earns US$5 per day from fishing but half of the income goes to his daily commute to and from the fish market. Like other ethnic Vietnamese on Tonle Sap, he lives with the fear that the authorities will keep marginalising them in the country they call home.

Concerns are spreading across Vietnamese communities over possible evictions in the near future. If it happens and they have not found a new place to live by then, a move to Vietnam will be their only option.
“They’re going to push us to Vietnam, not just those in Kampong Chhnang but other ethnic Vietnamese living across Tonle Sap too. I don’t have money to buy the land so I’ll have to go to Vietnam. Many people will,” Nguyen said.
As Cambodia counts down to the elections, the anti-Vietnamese sentiment may grow.
"In such circumstances, it is sadly all too easy to envisage a situation where marginalised Vietnamese become bargaining chips for political popularity," Coughlan said.