Challenging Khmer Citizenship: Minorities, the State and the International Community in Cambodia

Stefan Ehrentraut


The idea of a distinctly ‘liberal’ form of multiculturalism has emerged in the theory and practice of Western democracies and the international community has become actively engaged in its global dissemination via international norms and organizations. This thesis investigates the internationalization of minority rights, by exploring state-minority relations in Cambodia, in light of Will Kymlicka’s theory of multicultural citizenship. Based on extensive empirical research, the analysis explores the situation and aspirations of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese, highland peoples, Muslim Cham, ethnic Chinese and Lao and the relationships between these groups and the state. All Cambodian regimes since independence have defined citizenship with reference to the ethnicity of the Khmer majority and have – often violently – enforced this conception through the assimilation of highland peoples and the Cham and the exclusion of ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese. Cambodia’s current constitution, too, defines citizenship ethnically. State-sponsored Khmerization systematically privileges members of the majority culture and marginalizes minority members politically, economically and socially.

The thesis investigates various international initiatives aimed at promoting application of minority rights norms in Cambodia. It demonstrates that these initiatives have largely failed to accomplish a greater degree of compliance with international norms in practice. This failure can be explained by a number of factors, among them Cambodia’s neo-patrimonial political system, the geo-political fears of a ‘minoritized’ Khmer majority, the absence of effective regional security institutions, the lack of minority access to political decision-making, the significant differences between international and Cambodian conceptions of modern statehood and citizenship and the emergence of China as Cambodia’s most important bilateral donor and investor. Based on this analysis, the dissertation develops recommendations for a sequenced approach to minority rights promotion, with pragmatic, less ambitious shorter-term measures that work progressively towards achievement of international norms in the longer-term.

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