Soldiers being discharged at a ceremony in Kampot on May 7, holding mosquito nets that were part of their demobilization package
Earlier this year 1,500 soldiers left their barracks to become civilians under the
demobilization pilot program. For many of these former soldiers, civilian life has
become a struggle for survival. Anette Marcher and Vong Sokheng found
the best intentions of the pilot demob program have been damned by poor preparation
and haggling over funds.
HONG Sopos almost saw it as his duty to shed his soldier's uniform and leave the
army when his commanders in Battambang asked for volunteers to demobilize earlier
this year. The 44-year-old veteran had been in the military for 18 years, but he
didn't quite feel he was living up to his responsibilities any more.
"I had a health problem. I was always sick. It made me tired and weak all the
time, so I could not work properly," said Sopos, explaining why with Cambodia
at peace and the Government wanting to downsize the military, he felt that he should
be one of the first soldiers to go.
Six months later, Sopos is a living example of the shortcomings of the Government's
pilot demobilization program.
"Life is more difficult now," Sopos said outside his modest palmleaf hut
on the outskirts of Battambang. "When I was a soldier, at least I got my salary
and a monthly rice ration. Now I get nothing."
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
When the Government's long-planned demobilization process got under way in May with
a pilot program that would send the first 1,500 soldiers home from the barracks,
Sopos was one of 421 soldiers in Battambang province who volunteered for the first
wave of discharges.
In a ceremony attended by high Government and military officials, Sopos was given
$240, 150 kilograms of rice, various agricultural and household items, and traded
his military uniform for civilian clothes.
The 150 kg of rice are now long gone, and the $240 was spent on an old motorbike
so he could work as a motodop. With daily earnings of between 3000 to 5000 riel a
day, Sopos barely has enough money to keep his motorcycle on the road, let alone
support his family.
To make matters worse, his health is still no better and authorities are threatening
to evict him and his family from the squatter shack he shares with his family along
the Battambang railway.
Sopos is now confused and disappointed that the help he and his fellow demobilized
soldiers were promised to ease their transition to civilian life has never materialized.
"When we demobilized they promised us that some organizations would assist us.
But they never came to help me," he says.
Sopos is not the only demobilized soldier who is struggling to adapt to civilian
life with little or no means to support themselves and their families.
Military commanders and analysts warn that many demobilized soldiers from the pilot
program live under very difficult conditions.
They often have no houses or land and no skills that can earn them a civilian living.
And after many years in the armed forces, they find it hard to integrate into civil
society. When times are tough, they turn to their former commanders, not to village
or commune leaders.
Some fear that the difficulties may ostracize demobilized soldiers and force some
of them to turn to banditry in despair. Others, like the Commander of Military Region
5, General Bun Seng, worry that the lack of support to reintegrate the demobilized
soldiers may jeopardize the whole process of downsizing the military.
"The demobilized soldiers from the pilot project face a lot of difficulties,"
Bun Seng says. "Other soldiers have heard about these difficulties and some
have now become reluctant to demobilize.
"We in the military would like to participate in reforming and downsizing the
armed forces, but if we don't add more support to the demobilization process, we
force our soldiers into difficult living conditions. If the problems are not solved,
we cannot demobilize."
Bun Seng has every reason to be concerned about what will happen after the demobilized
soldiers are sent home. Region 5, which comprises the northwestern provinces, is
destined to bear the brunt of the downsizing.
Over the next three years, the full demobilization program is scheduled to bring
Cambodia's armed forces down to just under 100,000 men.
More than 10,000 soldiers out of a nationwide 31,500 will be discharged from Region
5 bases. Apart from the 421 in Battambang, Region 5 demobilized another 370 soldiers
in Banteay Meanchey province under the pilot program. The rest of the 1,500 came
from Kampong Thom and Kampot provinces.
Sopos initially looked forward to a new life outside the barracks, but he and many
other former soldiers in similar situations fell through a crack in the demobilization
program. At least temporarily.
This crack was created mainly by administrative difficulties. The organizers of the
pilot program were simply not sufficiently prepared to deal with all the numerous
aspects of reintegrating 1,500 soldiers - and with financing the process.
The pilot project had a total budget of $2.2 million - a manageable amount compared
with the estimated $45 million that the full demobilization program will cost. But
nine different donors were involved in financing the pilot project and the process
of coordinating and officially securing the individual contributions turned out to
be a lot more complex and time-consuming than initially anticipated.
Bonaventure Mbida-Essama, the World Bank's Phnom Penh Chief, who is the overall donor
coordinator of the demobilization program, acknowledges that the administration of
funding delayed certain aspects of the pilot project.
"You could say that we were a little overoptimistic about the difficulties in
putting all the money together," he said. "We did not realize how complicated
it was to coordinate all these small amounts of money. In reality it was very complex.
We had to sign different agreements bilaterally with every one of the donors."
Also, the demobilization process itself involved far more than just sending the soldiers
home from the barracks with the designated money and rice.
Special attention had to be paid to vulnerable groups such as disabled and old soldiers,
war widows and child soldiers. Most soldiers needed to learn new skills to find a
civilian job. And the issue of land tenure and housing also had to be dealt with.
Again, the establishment and coordination of these efforts took longer than anticipated.
"Most people don't realize how complex demobilization is, but you are really
dealing with a lot of the same problems as you face in governance in general,"
Bun Seng points out that professional skills, land and working abilities are exactly
the issues that the demobilized soldiers are struggling with now.
"For the healthy soldiers it has not been so bad, but the disabled and older
soldiers have had many difficulties," he says. "Some of the demobilized
soldiers still have no land to build a house on, so they move around from one village
"We want to run training courses for the soldiers to teach them skills as mechanics,
engineers, tailors or specialized farmers, but we just don't have enough money to
pay for it."
One less tangible issue has been preparing the demobilized soldiers to mentally adapt
to the realities of civilian life.
The UN agency Cambodia Area Rehabilitation and Regeneration Project (CARERE) in Battambang
is running community building programs in many of the areas, where demobilized soldiers
have settled, and Provincial Program Manager Kung Munichan points out why a special
effort is needed to integrate the soldiers and make them participate in community
"When you have lived as a soldier for so long, it is a challenge to change your
life to a civilian," Munichan says. "But the soldiers need to forget about
the life of a soldier and become normal and simple members of their communities.
They have to become ordinary villagers that can participate in commune activities.
"If that doesn't happen they are not really demobilized. Physically and formally
they are, but they will still want to live as a soldier. I don't think that is what
Bun Seng agrees that after many years in the armed forces, a lot of soldiers are
more attached to their former commanders than to their local communities.
"After the soldiers are demobilized, it is the burden of the local authorities
to ensure their living conditions," he says. "But many soldiers go to their
former commanders instead and ask for help, when they face difficulties. For instance
in Banteay Meanchey, some 20 families of demobilized soldiers are still living right
outside the military base."
According to Mbida-Essama, many of the problems with community integration and insufficient
professional skills, equipment, land and housing are being solved or will be within
the foreseeable future.
Additional packages of fishing nets, chickens, seeds, bicycles and other items are
being distributed to the demobilized soldiers from the pilot program. Each package
is valued at $85 a family but is put together according to individual needs.
A survey on the national labor market has already been carried out in order to determine
what professional skills will enable former soldiers to prosper in civilian life.
And both donors and the Government say they remain committed to find suitable land
and housing for all demobilized soldiers.
Military Region 5 will bear the brunt of demobilization, having to reduce its troops by more than 10,000
"Now that we have the funds, the next step is detailed and careful planning
of the efforts," Mbida-Essama says. "By the end of the year we will have
gone a long way to finalizing the pilot project. We hope to conduct a workshop on
the lessons learned from the pilot program by the end of this year or very early
In the meantime, plans for the full demobilization process are also moving along,
and the funding is slowly falling into place. The World Bank itself has put up a
$15 million loan on lenient conditions, Sweden and Germany have already committed
funds, and a number of other donors have expressed serious interest, pending the
results of the pilot program.
The Cambodian Government remains committed to pay the $240 in cash to each soldier,
which amounts to some $7 million.
But Mbida-Essama says the demobilization will not go ahead until all funds are securely
"That is one of the lessons we have learned from the pilot program; before we
start implementing the full demobilization program we must make sure that all the
funds are not just committed, but also available," says Mbida-Essama, who predicts
that the process may be delayed by one or two months, but not more.
To a great many soldiers all over Cambodia, this is good news. After many years of
fighting, the nationwide urge to remain in military service is anything but overwhelming.
Says Bun Seng: "Many soldiers indicated to us that they want to go back to civilian
life. In fact, we found that the number of soldiers who would volunteer to demobilize
is higher than the Government's target for demobilization."
And though tales of the hardships encountered by demobilized soldiers have reached
into all the barracks at the provincial military headquarters in Battambang, it has
not deterred people like 47-year-old Lach Saran from standing by his decision to
put down the gun and pick up the hoe.
"There is no more fighting and I have been a soldier for 20 years," Saran
says. "Now I want to become a farmer instead, and fortunately I already have
a piece of land."
"The soldiers did not get enough support when they demobilized, but I don't
think it will be a problem for me. I believe that the Government and the international
donors will pay attention to this problem and solve it before it is my turn to leave."