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Army chief calls for conscription

Compulsory military service is vital if the country is to ensure the sustainability

of its armed services, one of Cambodia's most senior generals said. That was one

recommendation heard at a May 8 seminar that breathed new life into the military

reform process.

Deputy Commander-in-Chief and Joint Chief of Staff, General Pol Saroeun, told the

gathering that the early establishment of a law implementing compulsory service was

"essential". Last February co-Defense Minister Tea Banh said a law would

be introduced to implement compulsory military service for men over eighteen.

General Saroeun's call comes at a time when Cambodia is about to demobilize a second

group of 15,000 soldiers from its bloated ranks. The $42 million donor-funded project

demobilized the first batch of 15,000 soldiers late last year.

The general was addressing a gathering of senior military officials, the co-Ministers

of Defense, and defense attaches who were invited as conference observers from nearly

a dozen embassies in Phnom Penh and Bangkok. The seminar was held to examine Cambodia's

defense policy implementation 14 months after the release of its first defense white

paper.

"This was a significant step in the implementation of the white paper and an

important moment in the long reform journey," said Australian defense attaché

Colonel Don Higgins.

Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia 2000 - Security and Development, - produced with

Australian government technical and financial support -outlined a plan for a smaller

but better trained, better equipped and more professional military. The Royal Cambodian

Armed Forces (RCAF) is made up of integrated government and former opposition forces.

The paper warned that without the option of introducing conscription, the military

could end up with "only commanders and aging officers with no fit, strong young

soldiers to perform their duties and responsibilities".

Defense spending, much of which goes on feeding and clothing the oversized military,

has typically dwarfed that spent on the social sector. Almost 20 percent of national

revenue went on defense in 2000.

Tea Banh conceded that individuals both inside and outside the military still had

limited knowledge of the white paper, and urged RCAF officers to spend more time

studying the 62 page document.

Funcinpec co-Minister of Defense, Prince Sisowath Sirirath, echoed those comments

when he told the seminar that despite recent achievements, shortcomings and challenges

may have prevailed in military reform.

Little reform has taken place since last year's launch. Nearly 30 years of war, say

observers, has left the military as a locus of entrenched and powerful interests.

Addressing profiteering on logging, smuggling and land grabbing, as well as ending

the politicization of the military, are key aims of defense reform.

General Saroeun said Cambodia's security threats could not be clearly identified,

adding that poverty was a threat to future security.

"Poverty is considered as a source of unlawful acts such as terrorism, transnational

crimes, illegal migrations, etcetera," he said.

He added that the proliferation of international terrorism in Southeast Asia was

unlikely to have a direct impact on Cambodia's security, but warned terrorism could

adversely affect the Kingdom's economy.

The white paper also listed a range of non-military security threats the armed forces

could help address. Among these are HIV/AIDS, environmental destruction, loss of

national treasures, and the depletion of endangered animals and marine life. All

undermine Cambodia's culture and values, the paper stated.

The white paper was written in a pre-September 11 world. The global security environment

has since changed markedly. Co-Minister Tea Banh promised a review of the country's

defense strategy in the near future.

"The defense strategy review that we plan to conduct this year would provide

significant interests in the development of the RCAF," Tea Banh said. "It

would help Cambodia to identify new threats on its national security and to improve

the RCAF's implementation of defense policy more efficiently and effectively."

General Saroeun also said RCAF needed to improve living conditions, and command and

control systems to ensure better cooperation within the military.

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