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Demobilisation on the backburner: PM

CAMBODIA has abandoned plans to scale back the size of its military because of a lack of funding and lingering border tensions, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday.

Speaking at the National Veterans Conference, the premier said he wants to demobilise soldiers in the future, but that the government is currently dealing with disputes and a dearth of donor funding.

“As we have more and more veterans, we want to demobilise more soldiers, but right now I have decided not to demobilise as we have invasions from neighbouring countries,” Hun Sen said. “Keep all these armed forces. There is no need to demobilise.”

Though the premier said a robust military presence is needed to ward off potential threats, he added that he is not looking for conflict.

“Use peaceful solutions. I do not want to see war happen anymore,” he said.

Hun Sen said Cambodia has managed to demobilise 17,000 soldiers over the last decade.

“I want to demobilise further, but we don’t have the money,” he said.

In 2001, Hun Sen signed off on the US$42 million Demobilisation and Reintegration Project, which was led by the World Bank, as a way of reintegrating soldiers into society after decades of conflict.

“I fully agree with the full demobilisation programme ... in order to reach the target of 30,000 demobilised soldiers,” Hun Sen said in a speech in October of that year. He noted then that authorities were aiming to eventually reduce the rolls of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces to between 70,000 and 80,000 people.

However, the project was contentious from the beginning.

The World Bank ignored warnings not to accept the government’s figures of how many soldiers were actually on the payroll, despite concerns about “ghost soldiers” and other “irregularities” reported in the registration process, according to a 2006 assessment the Bank produced.

By the time the project ended in 2005, the programme itself was tainted with irregularities, after a World Bank investigation revealed “fraudulent practices” surrounding the procurement of a $6.9 million contract to supply motorcycles. The project succeeded in demobilising 15,000 soldiers – half of the original goal. A further 1,500 soldiers had already been demobilised in an earlier pilot.

Ministry of Economy and Finance statistics showed the number of employees on the defence payroll fell from 130,695 to 112,359 by September 2002, according to the World Bank assessment.

Despite the demobilisation efforts, the past few years have seen Cambodia’s military assume a more prominent – and worrying – role in society, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

He noted that Hun Sen earlier this year controversially urged businesses to financially support the military, a directive that led authorities to pair companies with military units. The Senate also approved a law allowing conscription in 2006.

“Politically, it’s moving toward a one-party state,” Ou Virak said. “The [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] controls the National Assembly. They control the courts. Now they’re looking at ways to have a stronger military presence.”

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