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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Compulsory military service seen as government ploy

Compulsory military service seen as government ploy

Agovernment plan to reintroduce compulsory military service training for young male

and female Cambodians, has been labelled an attempt to control growing civil unrest

and hide unemployment figures.

The Council of Ministers approved a draft bill that would see Cambodian citizens

aged 18 to 30 required to complete 18 months in the military, allowing the legislation

to go before the National Assembly for ratification.

"I do not understand why are the youth angry, they must be obligated to military

duty to defend their country," said Minister of Defence Tea Banh.

"If a neighboring country invades sometime [in the future] we will have an insufficient

military."

But critics have questioned the government's motivation for wanting compulsory service

in a country where the military is already considered by experts to be "bloated"

and "disorganized".

Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian, said: "The government is concerned

right now over civil unrest which could take place in the near future, because of

government failure, particularly over tackling poverty."

Police have cracked down heavily on demonstrations since the anti-Thai riots in January

last year, recently suppressing several protests against the price of petrol.

"The draft law could be used to control young people and with a conscription

law in place it would be possible to discipline them with military training,"

said Chhay.

Chhay said the conscription could be used to extort money from potential recruits.

"It's happened before; soldiers arrest young people and put them in cages like

animals until the family pays money," he said. "If they don't pay they

send them to malarial or land-mined areas."

He said wealthy families might be able to pay their way out of conscription, fostering

institutional corruption.

With an estimated 300,000 Cambodians reaching the age of 18 each year and struggling

to find work in a job market that can absorb only a tenth of that figure, there is

speculation that compulsory military service could blanket the effects in the short

term.

"It's one way to hide the high level of unemployment [but] it really will only

delay the onset," said a Phnom Penh-based diplomat.

Conscription would also fly in the face of World Bank efforts to reduce the size

of Cambodia's ineffective army, a program that was suspended in 2003 over misuse

of donor funds.

"We would hope that any new positions created are part of a net reduction of

the armed forces," said Gillian Brown, head of the World Bank's demobilization

project based in Bangkok.

"We have not heard from the government whether it wants to continue with it

[demobilization]," said Brown.

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