The plan, which the government has said it will start carrying out over the next two months, is said to involve stripping the citizenship of tens of thousands of “foreigners” – many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese who have no citizenship elsewhere.

“We hope that while people are waiting for their legal documents to be completed, they will be able to maintain a stable life and continue contributing to Cambodia’s socio-economic development,” said spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang, according to Reuters.

The Immigration Department announced last week that it had identified 70,000 individuals with “mistaken” documentation, including passports and national identification cards, and would be revoking them in the coming months.

Asked yesterday when the authorities would begin taking away paperwork, department Director Sok Phal wrote by email, “The group is preparing to go down”, without elaborating further or responding to subsequent questions.

Before the Khmer Rouge takeover, many ethnic Vietnamese were granted citizenship under the 1954 Nationality Laws, according to human rights lawyer Lyma Nguyen. After fleeing the Pol Pot regime, they were then denied legal recognition upon returning to Cambodia.

“They cannot prove their acquisition of citizenship, in part due to their forced relocation to Vietnam during the Pol Pot regime, after which they returned to Cambodia in the 1980s, without documentation,” she said via email yesterday.

The 1954 laws were repealed and replaced by stricter nationality laws in 1996, but Nguyen said this should not retroactively revoke citizenship.

“Upon their return to Cambodia, their homeland, they were considered by the government as ‘illegal immigrants’ and without a means to prove their previous civil status in Cambodia, they live in limbo,” she said.

Noun Chanthou, a 58-year-old ethnic Vietnamese resident of Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, is one of those in limbo. Chanthou, whose Vietnamse name is Dav Thhy Thoung, says she has no official documents from Cambodia or Vietnam, despite living in the Kingdom for more than 30 years.

“We cannot get a passport because we did not have documents . . . My other three children who were born here were just given migrant documents . . . I cannot go visit my daughter in Malaysia because I don’t have a passport,” she explained.

Regional analyst Carl Thayer said Vietnam was unlikely to take a strong stand against Cambodia, but will do what it can to preserve ethnic Vietnamese communities in the Kingdom.

“It is in Vietnamese interest to have a resident Vietnamese community in Cambodia,” he said, explaining that it “binds” the two nations and acts as a “conduit for bilateral relations”.

On Saturday, Billy Tai, an independent human rights and legal consultant, said the issue of “statelessness” for ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia is ongoing. He also said claims that ethnic Vietnamese are truly illegal immigrants is “eerily similar” to rhetoric used against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Tai added that Cambodia is not a signatory to the 1954 UN Convention on Statelessness, but said the convention has arguably acquired “customary international law status”.

By Andrew Nachemson & Kong Meta - The Phnom Penh Post - October 12, 2017