Young RCAF soldiers face an uncertain future. Photo by Masaru Goto.
THE concept of military demobilization is simple - select 55,000 soldiers, give them
$1200 each and say good bye.
The reality, say military sources and foreign experts, is far different. They say
it will easily take five years to cut back Cambodia's military, whilst at the same
time trying to organize it into a force to deal with Cambodia's real rather than
And during the process they say that the losers - higher and middle ranking
officers who will be forced from their positions of power, prestige and substantial
income - will be fighting the changes with a vigor rarely seen in their military
There is no shortage of people who will be disappointed by the restructuring. RCAF
boasts two officers for every soldier, including more than 2000 generals.
Western military forces generally work on a ratio of one officer to seven to eight
soldiers - the number of generals is also somewhat lower.
Everyone spoken to cited Hun Sen as the driving force behind the restructuring, and
said it was a genuine attempt to push through reform, not just window dressing for
the benefit of donors.
"He is serious, very serious. It is like the logging ban - when that was announced
I was skeptical about it, but now the trade has stopped," said one diplomat.
"It is the same with military restructuring. If Hun Sen wants it to happen it
will happen - and is happening."
Hun Sen has said that the end of the war with the Khmer Rouge and the cost of maintaining
a large army are the main reasons behind the changes.
Military sources said that another reason is the social instability generated by
having a large armed underpaid group in society.
An example of this came from Commander of Special Military Region Zero General Prum
Din who said that he had been told to start looking for accommodation for his troops
away from Phnom Penh.
Currently the headquarters and barracks are in the heart of the capital, and it is
a situation that even concerns General Din.
He said when there was fighting against the Khmer Rouge he could send his troops
up to the front lines, but that now they are all returning to the barracks. He said
he was told by his superiors that the Government did not want a lot of under-occupied
troops wandering the streets of the capital scaring residents.
A further reason put forward by a diplomat was that it is part of the overall plan
of Hun Sen to stabilize the country and move it forward. He said that military restructuring
should be looked at in conjunction with issues such as the logging ban, the gun ban,
and the crackdown on casinos.
However, the restructuring is likely to be Hun Sen's most difficult and risky project.
With military co-operation between Cambodia and most other countries suspended, there
is little foreign input other than World Bank money for paying off demobilized troops
- a bill which could run as high as $1billion.
There are two broad areas that need to be looked at.
The first part is a plan - a white paper - for the future of the armed forces, and
a risk assessment. Co-Defense Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath said that they had
been given some advice on how to produce the document by the Australian Embassy.
Australian defense attaché Dougall McMillan said that he was providing some
advice on the logistics of drafting of a white paper but emphasized it was nothing
to do with Australian defense co-operation. He said it was just part of his role
as the defense attaché.
The second area to be dealt with is actual demobilization. With the information in
the white paper the military can decide who it needs to keep to fulfill that role,
and who it can lose. For this process there is World Bank funding.
The white paper is being drafted by a committee of senior RCAF staff with input from
civilian advisors, as well as relevant ministries such as Finance, Foreign Affairs
and Prime Ministerial advisors.
A new policy and planning department within the general services branch has also
been created to assist.
The department is recruiting staff from RCAF who have been through overseas staff
colleges; civilians with good policy backgrounds are also being brought in.
One of the key stages in determining the future of RCAF is a risk assessment.
A risk assessment looks at what dangers there are to Cambodia and where they come
from. Military analysts said there was zero risk of invasion; however in the other
categories there were some identifiable risks and therefore possible roles for a
These included protection of Cambodia's maritime territory, particularly if substantial
oil and gas reserves were discovered, guarding borders, illegal immigration and logging.
The broad policy changes in the first area and the moves towards a more professional
and non-aligned military have already caused some murmurs among senior RCAF staff.
Army commander Meas Sophea is said to have now accepted the overall premise that
the military will no longer set defense policy but rather will implement the policies
set out by the Government through the Ministry of Defense.
However, RCAF Commander-in-Chief Ke Kim Yan is understood to be unhappy with this
concept, seeing it as an erosion of his power.
He is also said to be unhappy about the budgetary savings aims of restructuring.
Kim Yan, who has a reputation of genuine concern for his troops' welfare, favors
radically reducing troop numbers but keeping the defense budget the same so that
he can push up salaries to a livable level.
He would like to see salaries of $50 a month for a private, and up to $2000 a month
for a general.
A defense analyst said that if this was agreed to, he would allow the Gendarmerie's
military police division to actually carry out their role of investigating and prosecuting
crime by the military.
Until now, such a role has been blocked by Yan who, realizing that soldiers' pay
is inadequate, has turned a blind eye to minor banditry and the operation of checkpoints.
There are also indications that military discipline is to be tightened prior to restructuring
with the appointment of General Sao Sokha to replace General Khien Savuth as Chief
of the Gendarm-erie.
General Sokha, who was in charge of military police during UNTAC, is believed to
be planning a crackdown on crime and corruption within RCAF.
At a lower level in RCAF there are also ructions, particularly in the provinces.
One idea being mooted to try to curb the 'warlord-style' military commanders in the
provinces is to bring provincial units under direct tactical control of RCAF headquarters.
This would then turn the regional and district commanders into administrators responsible
for feeding and housing troops, but would give them no power to order military operations.
And there are already moves afoot to curb the military strength of provincial commanders.
Tanks and artillery have been moved back to Kampong Speu, where they will be stored
until needed by new units. So far, this appears to have gone smoothly with only a
few tanks up near the Thai border still to be returned.
Recent political moves within the military have cemented Hun Sen loyalists into positions
of strength, with Funcinpec-aligned generals pushed into the background.
Of the 26 most senior positions, Funcinpec has been given only three slots - Lieutenant
General Khan Savoeun is deputy commander-in-chief, Major General Hun Phoeung is deputy
chief-of joint-staff, and Major General Mean Sarin is deputy army commander.
General Khuon Frang, a former deputy commander of the air force and now a Funcinpec
senator, was probably the most unlucky victim of those moves.
General Frang would be the most well qualified person to run the air force. He has
substantial aviation experience both civilian and military. However, the job went
to CPP-aligned Major General Soeung Samnang.
Probably the greatest unknown element in the restructuring is what input and influence
there will be from overseas. US and Australian input is still blocked as a matter
of policy by the respective governments following the July coup.
China has said it would provide some money to help with demobilization costs, which
indicates it supports the overall concept.
But it is unclear what the French position is and whether they are pushing a particular
line. There is some concern that they favor the retention of a large standing army
and might support such a move.
If so, it could provide a dangerous outlet and voice for those in RCAF, unhappy with
the process, to sabotage it.
Once the plan outlined in the white paper is decided on and the future of the military
set out, the next phase of the restructuring - demobilization - can get underway
Once completed, Prince Sisowath estimated that there would be 70,000 people employed
in the new look military - but by that time it would be 2003.
He said RCAF would then be restructured in time for the incoming Government following
the elections planned for that year.
He said it would be possible that the new Government might decide that Cambodia no
longer needed a 70,000 strong standing army and again cut it back.
But in the immediate future the first problem with shedding troops is that there
are no accurate figures for the size of the army. RCAF estimates that there are 148,000
troops on its payroll.
But that includes "non effective troops" - the disabled, the elderly and
Hun Sen advisor Om Yien Teng said that the non-existent troops could be culled very
quickly and provide immediate savings to the Government before even drawing on World
Bank funds for demobilization.
He estimated at least 20,000 soldiers did not exist, their pay being pocketed by
The first action therefore is to get an accurate registration of all RCAF staff.
From there, the list of people wanting to take up the demobilization offer can be
drawn up and they can be readied for civilian life.
Prum Dim said that he did not think there would be a shortage of takers, saying most
of his troops wanted to leave and the prospect of $1200 cash was a very strong inducement.
The findings of the white paper will determine which troops are actually eligible
for the offer.
With new structures and roles for RCAF it is likely that some specialist soldiers
will be retained for those positions.