ACCORDING to UN officials and local and international NGOs working in the northwestern provinces men and boys live in constant fear of being conscripted into the army or the local militia.
UN and NGO officials say while there have been reports of violent coercion, conscription often seems more a means of extorting money from the population than of getting new soldiers for the army or local militias.
An official working with the local ADHOC NGO in Siem Reap said: "It seems that very often money is the main objective."
A UN official who has worked extensively in Battambang says bribes to avoid conscription range from 100,000 riel to 200,000 riel.
The practice appears most common in Battambang where aid officials say conscription for the army is a big problem with soldiers holding-up people in their homes and at checkpoints.
UN officials say the practice is also happening in Pursat, Siem Riep and Banteay Meanchey.
In one incident Chan Socheath (not his real name) reported to UNHCR in Battambang that he was cycling to church in Pursat's Bakan district one Sunday early this month.
He says a soldier stopped him and asked for a ride to the nearby district military office in Bakan.
Chan said when he arrived in Bakan he was 'arrested' and detained in the office for one night, along with 33 other men between 14 and 40 years of age who had been 'detained' on roads and marketplaces.
According to Chan seven men were released the next morning after their relatives 'negotiated' with the military. Chan says he does not know if they paid money for their release.
But he and about 20 others were trucked to Toul village in Battambang's Rattanak Mondol district, close to the Royal Armed Forces front-line.
He says they were joined by about 120 men from other districts in Pursat, all of whom were given military uniforms.
Chan claims three of the men paid between 50,000 to 60,000 riel for a 'military guide' to lead them to Battambang to avoid being 'recruited' into the army.
Chan says he and his 'guide' walked to Treng, took a moto-taxi to Sdau checkpoint where his 'guide' asked him to throw away his uniform.
Chan and his 'guide' then took a car taxi to Battambang town, where Chan paid his 'guide' $24 which he said he borrowed from a local Christian church.
Chan says he cannot return to his village for many months because the military may come after him again.
Other innovative methods exist to conscript men. A UN official quoted villagers who described how video parlors were surrounded halfway through a movie and all the male viewers were rounded up.
Such is the fear in some areas in the provinces that aid officials say men have spent several nights out in the fields.
A UNHCR official said: "The problem [of conscription and extortion] is very localized, occurring only in districts which are affected by the fighting."
The issue came into focus last year after several returnees from the border were conscripted and their plight was raised by concerned groups in Phnom Penh.
A protection officer with UNHCR says: "Returnees are disproportionately affected by such a problem because they are new to the area and do not have the money or influence needed to avoid conscription."
But this year, a new dimension was added with the possibility of foreign aid for the military.
UN and NGO officials quote villagers as saying that some army officials were afraid that there would be some kind of check on troop numbers as a precondition to military aid, and that the 'phantom soldiers' in the army would be discovered.
Chan reported soldiers of the 5th division of the 5th military region as saying that more people would be recruited to fill up the numbers on the lists of soldiers originally submitted to Untac.
One UN official says: "At least some of the conscription this year seems to have been done to flesh out ghosts."
Conscription is done by both the Royal Army and local militias. Officials with the UN and Adhoc in Siem Riep province say that often heads of militia go out from house to house looking for males generally between 18 and 30 years of age.
UN and NGO officials say a bribe of between 10,000-30,000 riel is needed to avoid militia conscription otherwise the men are appointed to guard an important place in the village like the administration building or a bridge which would be prone to attack in case of a battle.
The officials say people conscripted into a militia generally do not have to leave their local areas and can go home at night.
For men who initially do not join, the militia reportedly return every few days and most families unable to pay a bribe every time are eventually forced to send their men to join.
One person from Siem Reap district who complained to ADHOC said he had paid 30,000 riel on two occasions and could not afford it any more. He said the third time the local militia returned to his house when he was not there his pregnant wife was told unless another payment was made he would be drafted.
According to ADHOC two other complainants who had paid large sums of money were still in hiding.
One ADHOC official from the province details several complaints that were made by people who were unable to meet the constant demand for money.
He said: "The situation in Siem Reap is bad especially in Chi Kreng district. Sometimes if people cannot pay money and do not manage to hide, they are threatened with death. We have known of attempts to kill people, but not of any actual deaths."
A report by a community development worker with an international NGO in Battambang, based on interviews with villagers, described how a 'quota' of recruits is set for each village.
The report said: "The head soldier from district X (name withheld) has been to see the commune leader at his house several times since early June. Village leaders and assistant leaders and sometimes policemen come to discuss recruitment.
"During the discussion the head soldier said that the plan for commune Y (name withheld) was to recruit 100 soldiers."
The report said village and commune leaders also use the conscription issue to threaten the villagers to pay money for bribes.
"The 'high ranking authorities' may want to conscript three people in each village, but the village committee conscripts five. Bribes are collected from the additional people as well."
NGO and UN officials have also reported a 'conscription lottery' this year in Battambang where one representative from each village puts in names of all men of suitable age from his village on pieces of paper. A bribe of about 50,000 riel can keep a person's name off the list.
A lottery is then held at the commune headquarters and those whose names are picked out are conscripted. Avoiding conscription at this stage could cost up to 200,000 riel, officials say.
Aid workers point out that the atmosphere of fear has badly hampered this year's rice planting season.
A UNHCR official working in Battambang says: "We have heard several instances of desperate people moving away to avoid this problem. If this is not reversed it could affect the next crop."
A community development worker with an international NGO reported how a village group, formed to get fertilizer for the planting season, decided to leave town late last month because they had heard that a target of 30 men had been set for their village.
The report adds: "[Bribes] are collected even from families so poor that they do not have enough food....If [the men] are caught, and have even a small piece of land, we find they will sell it to avoid conscription."
The report quotes a village Rice Bank member as saying: "Next year if we cannot repay all the rice don't blame us. We have no opportunity to produce rice this year."
A UN official says that unless the problem is tackled at a high level and comprehensively nothing will change.
He said: "Individual redress is not possible. People are too afraid to come out alone and complain about the army.
"There is always the fear of retribution because it is not difficult to trace the complainant."
In Siem Reap Adhoc contacted the local military police early this month to ask for an investigation into the problem in the province.
An official working with the organization in Siem Reap says: "We want to find out who is behind this. We also want to know if there are any rules at all governing conscription."
A UN official who has worked extensively in Battambang says: "This problem is not new either here or in any society in a state of civil war.
"Conscription by itself is not illegal but the terror and extortion factors should be got rid of. This is in everyone's interest, especially the army's."