Cambodia was engulfed by several bouts of civil unrest in the run-up to its general elections in July 2013. The ballot was fraught with voting irregularities and political intimidation, with the main opposition leader excluded from the process. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, clamped down on dissidents, human rights activists and journalists before narrowly securing another five-year term in office. Indigenous communities – encumbered by high illiteracy rates and limited access to the political system – were also targeted for electoral manipulation. In many rural provinces, members of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) reportedly instructed minorities to vote for their representatives.

The Khmer Rouge trials drew to a close in October, with the last two surviving defendants persistently denying any involvement in the genocide, which claimed some two million lives between 1975 and 1979. Addressing the court, Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's second in command known locally as 'Brother Number Two', maintained that Vietnamese and American 'agents' were responsible for the atrocities – feeding into a wider xenophobic narrative against Cambodia's historic enemy and local minority populations.

A rash of land grabs continued to plague Cambodia's minority and indigenous communities. Rights activists report that the country faces a land grabbing crisis driven by the government's neoliberal economic land concessions (ELC) scheme, which has seen large swathes of the country carved up and sold off to multinational companies with close ties to the ruling elite. In north-eastern Rattanakiri province, indigenous groups accuse Vietnamese rubber firms of taking over their lands. In 2012, the government responded to criticisms by placing a moratorium on future ELCs and rolling out a 'land-titling' scheme, intended to grant land ownership to locals. But critics say the new programme, led by a team of Hun Sen's youth volunteers, is equally tainted by corruption and abuse. It was briefly suspended in June.

According to the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), indigenous groups, which make up less than 2 per cent of the population, are especially vulnerable to land encroachments, since they are often marginalized by the state, lacking full access to social security and public education. Although they are entitled to collective land titles, indigenous communities must first obtain legal recognition, which only five out of 114 applicants had successfully done as of early 2013.

Locals say they face additional pressure to accept private rather than communal land titles, which permanently weakens their socio-economic rights under Cambodian law. For example, an indigenous community in Thporng district of Kampong Speu told HRW they were urged to participate in the scheme, only to discover that they had subsequently renounced ownership to other lands they considered community territory. 'The students said we had to accept what they were ordered to do by the provincial cadastral officials who are acting on written orders from the ministries in Phnom Penh,' a villager said. 'If not, there could be trouble, and we would get nothing.'

Meanwhile, the opposition party has been keen to exploit local discontent over land issues to their political advantage. Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has been criticized for using anti-Vietnamese sentiments to bolster his political campaign. This follows his 2010 conviction for racial incitement and vandalism following a protest he led against alleged land encroachments by neighbouring Vietnam – although his prosecution is also widely believed to have been politically motivated. Opposition protests in December 2013 and January 2014 were marred by anti-Vietnamese slogans and reports of at least three ethnic Vietnamese-run businesses being looted. The incidents led the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, to issue a rebuke against the opposition.

Rooted in historical animosity and exacerbated by an influx of migrants and businessmen, ethnic Vietnamese have become convenient political scapegoats for Cambodia's social ills. The country's Vietnamese-speaking minority, which constitutes roughly 5 per cent of the population of 15 million people, has borne the brunt of this anger. In the July poll, ethnic Vietnamese were reportedly blocked from voting in several provinces amid rumours that they had been illegally brought in from Vietnam by the CPP. Describing it as 'ethnically motivated disenfranchisement', the local human rights group LICADHO noted that local authorities took no meaningful action to help the residents. The minority already faces endemic discrimination in Cambodia, with many barred from citizenship and basic rights, despite having lived in the country for generations.

Media reports suggest that some ethnic Vietnamese – especially more recent arrivals – have left Cambodia, fearing for their lives. Even those speaking out for the minority have come under attack. In December, CCHR penned an open letter to Sam Rainsy's opposition party, imploring them to stop vilifying the Vietnamese. Days later the CCHR's President, Ou Virak, began receiving death threats via email and social media. Virak has suggested that the lack of support, even from rights groups, is in part because these organizations are focused on challenging Hun Sen's regime but overlook the shortcomings of the opposition.

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