The government is pressing ahead with a military conscription law that would require all Cambodians, both male and female, between the ages of 18 and 30 to serve in the armed forces for at least 18 months.
People who refuse to serve could face up to five years in jail.
The Council of the Ministers approved the draft law on September 3, 2004. Now it is being taken a step further, with the National Assembly's Commission in charge of Home Affairs, National Defense, Investigation and Anti-Corruption planning to discuss it with officials of the Ministry of Defense today, July 14, according to Opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) lawmaker Yim Sovann.
He told the Post on July 11 that he estimates the law would result in two to three million people joining the military, and that this would lead to dire straits for families dependent on their young for livelihood and welfare.
"I think Cambodia is poor and young people are an important labor force to support their family," Sovann said.
A government statement hints that conscripts are needed to give the army's bloated officer corps some troops to command.
But SRP President Sam Rainsy says conscription has been proposed to defuse what he has called "an unemployment timebomb."
He said from Paris on July 13 that his party has been lobbying against the draft law and will continue to fight its adoption.
"We are totally against the conscription law," Rainsy said. "We have told donors that this is totally inconsistent with the poverty reduction program, totally irrelevant and will cost them money. It is completely inconsistent with the situation in the country.
"To solve unemployment the government should create jobs, not recruit soldiers. We are urging donors to put pressure on the government to give up the plan."
Monh Saphan, Funcinpec parliamentarian and member of the National Assembly's Permanent Committee, said Cambodia is not involved in any national emergencies, so the conscription law is not an urgent necessity.
"I think the draft law on military conscription is not an emergency to put into the agenda for debate," he said. "The Ministry of Defense has refused to give actual numbers of soldiers, demobilized soldiers, ghost soldiers and retired soldiers, and the ministry has explained that it is a military secret."
A government statement issued on October 21, 2004, just after the Council of Ministers approved the draft law, said the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) lacked the resources to wage a war due to the increasing age of soldiers and a shortage of soldiers for officers to command.
"There will be many military officers in the future without soldiers to control," the statement said.
It said conscription would herald necessary reforms in the RCAF and promote national defense. It called for the law to be passed immediately by the National Assembly.
The draft law says that after completing their service conscripts could remain in the armed forces or return to civilian life.
In the early 2000s the government was engaged in demobilizing 30,000 soldiers with World Bank assistance, but only half of the soldiers were demobilized when the World Bank closed the project in 2004 because of alleged misprocurement of funds.
The statement wrote that the government has not recruited for the armed forces since 1993, and that retirement and age would weaken the existing forces to the point where Cambodia would be vulnerable and unable to protect its borders.
"In order to have young armed forces with enough ability to fight for defense of the nation in necessary cases, Cambodia needs to have the law on military conscription," the statement said.
Minister of Defense Tea Banh told the National Assembly in March that the army had approximately 112,773 soldiers commanded by 613 generals - only 184 soldiers for each general. There are 6,654 colonels and majors.
The Ministry of Defense has prepared a White Paper on the reform of the armed forces with assistance from the Australian government. It was approved by the government and published in February 2001.
The White Paper defines objectives for the military and recasts its role in the context of a peaceful and stable Cambodia.
The White Paper clearly states that the government's political guidelines direct the armed forces to demobilize to an acceptable size.