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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Conscription: 'unnecessary, unaffordable, unfair'

Conscription: 'unnecessary, unaffordable, unfair'


All Cambodian men between the ages 18 and 30 will have to register to serve in the

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), and if they are called up, do 18 months compulsory

military service, if the law on conscription passed by the National Assembly on October

25 comes into force.

Prime Minister and RCAF Commander-in-Chief General Ke Kim Yan, who took command in 1999.

Once a conscript has finished his 18 months service, he will remain on the "reserves"

list for an unspecified time and be liable for further compulsory service whenever

the Ministry of Defence deems necessary.

Anyone who fails to serve when summoned will be liable to two years prison in peace

time and five years in time of war.

Voted for by 74 out of the 82 lawmakers in attendance, after a brief but fierce debate

cut short by National Assembly President Heng Samrin, the law has attracted serious

criticism from military and social analysts, civil society leaders, and opposition


Unnecessary, unaffordable, and unfair was the opinion of one military analyst.

"[Cambodia] not only does not need this [law], it is hard to imagine how it

can afford this," he said.

Realistically, the RCAF's budget will allow for only a few thousand new conscripts

a year, the analyst said.

"This will make this law an extremely unpopular and, you could say, unfair one,

due to its selective nature," he said. "How selection will be conducted

is beyond me, but it will be a mess I would imagine."

Selective compulsory conscription will not serve to alleviate any of Cambodia's social

ills, said Theary Seng, director of the Center for Social Development, a local NGO.

"Amid the sea of national problems and potential solutions, I do not see war

as a problem or military conscription as a solution for Cambodia," she said.

"We may be a country at war against the demons within ourselves but we are not

at war with another country; there is no need for forced, mandatory military service."

Proponents of conscription have argued that it is a pragmatic policy which will provide

vocational and physical training for young Cambodian men.

"We cannot say when there will be a war," CPP Defense Minister Tea Banh

told the National Assembly. "We have to [train soldiers] when we have the opportunity

during times of peace."

If applied universally, correctly and resourced properly, compulsory conscription

can indeed develop a ready pool of trained personnel for times of military crisis,

but the chance of this occurring in Cambodia is slim, the military analyst said.

"The government lacks the resources to fund this initiative," he said.

"[And] it is difficult to see a level of crisis or conventional military conflict

[arising in Cambodia] which would require such a pool of manpower."

Investing the country's limited resources in training soldiers is an ineffective

means of helping Cambodia's younger generation, or society as a whole, Seng said.

"Carrying or shooting a gun is not a reflection of character, a virtue of manhood,

or a part of personal and societal development," she said. "In the Cambodian

context, we should be moving away from guns and violence, not promoting them."

Now more than ever, Cambodia is in need of psycho-emotional healing and reconstruction

as it moves towards national recovery after the Khmer Rouge regime, said Leakhena

Nou, Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach.

"Military conscription would divert attention from providing essential survival

resources and addressing the psychosocial needs of the total population," she

said. "The youth, in particular, would benefit far more from a comprehensive

national educational and job training program."

Nou's sociological research, conducted between 1997 and 2002, on the psycho-social

well-being of Cambodian university students showed that they had high levels of poor

mental health symptoms, including both psychological and somatic symptoms, and poor

quality of life.

"This finding raises concerns about whether Cambodia's youth will be effective

as military soldiers," she said. "Policy-makers [should be] urged to re-examine

their views and policies regarding national military conscription."

The military analyst said that theoretically, compulsory conscription could provide

Cambodia's youth a sense of national or social responsibility and exposure to discipline

lacking in normal social circles. Currently, there are no real institutions that

create a sense of loyalty or sense of obligation to anything outside the immediate

or extended family, he said.

But the selective nature of Cambodia's compulsory conscription will undermine the

social benefits that universal compulsory conscriptioncan bring, he said.

"If it was universal, 'one in, all in', I would think it would be a good thing

in a social way," he said. "But the RCAF lacks the capacity to absorb any

large numbers of personnel and to train and sustain them."

He said the small number of people who will be conscripted undermined one strand

of the government's argument: that the legislation will have a positive impact on

Cambodia's unemployed youth.

"You are only displacing the unemployed for a period, and then they feed back

into the wider community in 18 months time," the military analyst said. "It

is not a real job creation scheme."

Sing said that if the aim of conscription was to tackle youth unemployment, then

the law is gravely misplaced, and appeared to be more of an attempt at social control.

"The party in power has been consolidating power in different spheres, and this

appears to be another move toward absolute power and control over the population,"

she said.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy agreed, saying the law is simply a new prong in the

CPP's continuing legislative attacks on freedom.

"[This law is a way for CPP officials] to collect up the young who would oppose

them so that they can easily control them," he told the National Assembly during

the debate on the law. "The jobless youth always oppose the government."

Though the law may not have been designed as a tool to control a restless populace,

it could have this impact depending on how it is implemented, said the military analyst.

"It will have some effect on [the CPP's level of] social control when the threat

of 18 months of your life is aimed at someone, or it will cost greatly to dodge the

responsibility of call-up," he said.

Experts agree it is unlikely that wealthy or well-connected individuals will be called

up to serve.

"The sons of the high-ranking elite will not serve a hard day's military life,"

the military analyst said. "If they serve, for appearance's sake, they will

serve in 'soft' positions or positions which afford them networking and business


On the other hand, those who are poor or pose a threat to the government's political

control may disproportionately end up serving in the RCAF.

"Young conscripts from peasant families may wind up fighting imaginary enemy

in the imaginary front line and die on behalf of the nieces or nephews of senior

government officials who should be doing the fighting," said California State

University's Nou. "Outspoken students, too, may be drafted urgently to the imaginary

front line and 'sacrificed' for senseless purposes."

Sing said that if one can afford it, avoiding conscription is likely to be a simple


"It is a well-known fact that everything can be bought here in Cambodia, so

why would this be any different?" she said.

This serves to indicate who really stands to gain from the law.

"The benefits of this conscription law will not touch Cambodians, except for

a handful that will benefit financially from whatever contracts that are associated

with implementing this law, and the ruling party which will have consolidated further

power," she said.

National duty or dodgy draft?

The Post spoke to local men about the passage of the mandatory military conscription.

Name: Chea Sao

Age: 24

Occupation: Moto driver

Marital status: Single

Home Province: Takeo

I am happy about the prospect of having to do military service as it would give me

the opportunity to learn about the military for free! I earn an average of 5000 riel

per day and I would do military service even if I earned less - because the law says

that if you try to avoid service you will be sent to prison.

Name: Prim Chunny

Age: 23

Occupation: Photographer

Marital Status: Single

Home Province: Prey Veng

I will not be a soldier - I will escape. I stopped studying in grade 6 and I have

been working as a photographer in Hun Sen Park ever since. I can earn between 10,000

and 20,000 riel a day - but in the army I would not get this amount of money. I need

to earn as much as I can because I send money to my parents in Prey Veng. I couldn't

do this if I was a soldier.

Name: declined to provide

Age: 24

Occupation: Monk

Marital Status: celibate

Home Province: Phnom Penh

I have been a monk for ten years. I don't know when I will leave the monkhood and

I don't know if I would want to be a soldier. I have heard from many people that

life in the army is not so good - but I know that you will be sent to prison if you

avoid military service. This puts too much pressure on people. This government, if

they want to do anything, they will do it. I don't think this law is very good but

what can we do? I voted for these parliamentarians, they are my representatives,

if they pass this law I must accept it. But the problem is that the parliamentarians

just do what the CPP tells them.

Name: Hun Sambo

Age: 29

Occupation: Moto Driver

Marital status: Single

Home Province: Takeo

I don't know about this new law but I would love to be a soldier. I like the idea

of serving my nation - this has been my life since I was born and I would be glad

to continue it. And I also love military uniform. Even though I would earn less money

than I do as a moto, I would have power and respect if I was a soldier.

Name: Lun Ran

Age: 27

Occupation: Mechanic

Marital status: Married with one child

Home Province: Prey Veng

I don't want to be a soldier as it won't benefit me in any way. I don't understand

why they pass this law - the country is not at war any more. It makes me think that

there must be some ulterior motive to their passing this law. I feel quite concerned

when I heard of this law because I have had many relatives who were soldiers - from

their experiences I know it is a risky life. Several of them died. I do not want

to be a soldier, but if I face prison time or military service, I would have to choose

military service.

Name: Hao Vireak

Age: 20

Occupation: Student

Marital Status: Single

Home Province: Phnom Penh

I think that the idea of compulsory military service could be good - but only if

the law allows students to finish their studies first. If you did military service

straight after finishing high school but before you started higher education that

would be fine. Military service could also be useful for career development - I want

to be an accountant and I hope that if I have to do military service there would

be some way of learning skills within the army that would help me achieve this goal.

I do believe that serving in the army is a very noble thing - it is service for your

country and everyone - rich and poor, students or not - should serve if asked to.

Name: Yeang Rom

Age: 28

Occupation: Cyclo driver

Marital Status: Married with two children

Home Province: Prey Veng

I will not go to be a soldier. If I am a soldier I will not earn as much as I do

now - up to 10,000 riel per day - and so I wouldn't be able to support my wife. If

they come and try and take me away for military service I will escape - no low ranking

soldier can make enough money to support their family.



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