In less than a week, 18-year-old Heng Tina, who has just finished his high-school exam, will take another test that determines whether he’ll get a scholarship to go to technical school, a development that would put him one step closer to his dream of becoming an engineer and designing skyscrapers.
But according to a law passed in 2006, though never meaningfully enforced, Tina should be taking exams of a different sort – such as marksmanship and physical fitness – as a newly minted conscript in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
Under the law, which many Cambodians – including Tina – have never heard of, every Cambodian man aged 18 to 23 is obliged to serve in the armed forces for 18 months.
It is something many say would do more harm than good, especially considering penal police director Lieutenant General Mok Chito’s announcement last week that more than 1,200 RCAF soldiers deserted their posts in the first eight months of 2012 alone.
According to the US Central Intelligence Agency’s world fact book, more than 150,000 Cambodian men reach “militarily significant age”, that is, 16 years old, every year, and conscripting every 18-year-old male in the Kingdom would cause a significant spike in the size of the military, despite years-long efforts to trim its size.
“Cambodia is overloaded with a number of soldiers,” said opposition Sam Rainsy lawmaker Son Chhay, who has seen troop counts as high as 200,000 – though he believes the actual number to be closer to 70,000.
Many of the soldiers that were “demobilised” in the past were simply ghost soldiers, he said, names on lists meant to swell a battalion’s payroll so that uncollected pay cheques could be taken by higher-ranking officers, of whom there are also too many.
“The government has to clean house . . . I’ve lost count of the generals. There are more stars on the shoulders of Cambodian soldiers than there are in the sky,” Chhay said.
And, he added, the military’s already-low pay is responsible for the trend of soldiers moonlighting as security guards for private corporations.
Ho Chantrea, a 29-year-old soldier stationed in Phnom Penh, declined to discuss the particulars of his own pay, but said that many of his friends took outside security jobs to augment their income.
“The salary is not enough,” said Chantrea, adding that he wanted to follow his friends’ example. “I also want to get extra jobs, but not yet.”
The lowest-ranking soldiers, Chantrea said, make only about $50 a month.
Soam Chivoan, who, at age 20, is another would-be draftee, said that given his druthers, he’d stick with the mobile booth he now runs, adding that even if the army paid better, he’d rather stay put.
That low salary, said Chhay, often has adverse effects.
“That’s why you can see soldiers being used by a private company to intimidate people,” Chhay said.
“There are so many abuses being raised by so many soldiers already, so you need soldiers who are qualified … not drunken two- or three-star generals who will set a bad habit for our young soldiers,” he added.
On August 31, police official Mok Chito blamed deserters, who he said often sell their service weapons, for a spike in armed robberies. In May, the military came under fire from rights groups after a soldier fatally shot a 14-year-old in a forced land eviction in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village, and reports of soldiers’ involvement in land evictions are a near weekly occurrence.
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay warned that adding more soldiers without significant reforms wasn’t likely to make things any better.
“I think that it’s not good to have a number of young people familiar with using guns, that after a while you let loose without discipline,” he said.
According to Mong Hay, a military that provided conscripts with a set of skills, and options for the future, could be a positive development, but the current system would be unlikely to produce such results.
Furthermore, he said, Cambodia has neither the human nor financial resources for full implementation of the 2006 law.
Nicolas Agostino, a technical assistant at the rights NGO Adhoc, also expressed concerns that the law would be unevenly enforced, and could have adverse political side effects.
“Those who are more well-off or well-connected would be able to evade conscription,” he said.
Multiple officials in various branches of the Ministry of National Defence, including the ministry’s policy arm, declined to comment on the conscription law.
Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Ek Tha directed questions to Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who said he was unfamiliar with the law.