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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Demobilization's house of mirrors

Demobilization's house of mirrors

The long awaited and much hyped demobilization program began last month,

bringing with it great hopes for a slimmed down military, fewer guns floating

around the country and the beginnings of a peace dividend. Unfortunately, those

hopes will be dashed, and most of the $42 million donors are providing for the

program will be wasted. Most disturbing, the program's chief donor, the World

Bank, knows that the program is based on false assumptions. Other donors are

either complicit or negligent in failing to do the research and simple math that

would have told them that the figures don't add up.

Newly demobilized soldiers leave a ceremony in Kampong Chhnang October 18 carrying goods, cash and children.

Demobilization -

which has been an official goal of the Cambodian government and on the aid

agenda of donors since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 - has

three primary purposes.

The first is to help the Royal Cambodian Armed

Forces (RCAF) become a modern and professional force with a size commensurate to

Cambodia's population and its genuine security needs and unburdened by the

retention of tens of thousands of unneeded soldiers.

Second, it is hoped

that reducing the number of persons entitled to wear a uniform (which creates

fear and confers authority) and carry a weapon in Cambodia's villages and cities

will reduce the number of human rights abuses committed by RCAF - the single

biggest violator of human rights in Cambodia. In other words, now that the war

with the Khmer Rouge has ended, it is hoped that that RCAF will end the war on

its own citizens and put a stop to practices such as extra-judicial executions,

extortion, illegal logging and land grabs.

Third, donors hope to use

demobilization as a starting point to radically reorient fiscal policy from the

security sector to the social sector. After a generation of war and a continuous

war economy, it is time to spend less on the army and more on health, education

and welfare (this is the reason the World Bank is involved).

These are

laudable goals. None will be met.

Start with the number of soldiers. The

entire demobilization program is based on figures supplied to the donors -

chiefly the World Bank and Japan - by the Cambodian government. According to the

government, as of December 1999 there were 140,693 members of the Royal

Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). Subsequently, approximately 8,000 widows and

children were moved from the military's payroll to that of the Ministry of

Women's and Veteran's Affairs, while 1,500 more were demobilized through a pilot

project last year, leaving approximately 130,500 "soldiers" in RCAF. The current

demobilization program will bring that number down to 100,000.

Co-Defense Minister Tea Banh honours retiring Cmdr Cham Samnang Oct 18.


most of the 130,500 remaining "soldiers" do not exist. More than two dozen

interviews with senior officers of the RCAF, representing all political

factions, make this clear. Most laughed when presented with the official number.

Only one officer interviewed claims that the official numbers are real. Among

the rest none gave a figure over 75,000, and a few put the figure as low as

20,000 actual soldiers in the RCAF. The average figure given was approximately

40,000. Not one of those interviewed said he had been asked by the program's

chief sponsors, the World Bank and Japan, about the actual size of the RCAF

(some said they would have told them; most, fearing repercussions, said they

would have referred the question to the Chief of Staff or the Council of


Co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath and the then

Australian military attaché Dougall McMillan told London's King's College

Journal of "Conflict, Security & Development" in October 2000 that there

were between 20,000-30,000 soldiers in RCAF. A former French military advisor

suggested "anywhere from 30,000-60,000 depending on how you count." A former

American attaché puts the figure at "a maximum of 40,000."


interested in the official view of the United States government only has to go

to the State Department website at to find that as of the end of

1997 the State Department "Bureau of Verification and Compliance" put the figure

at 60,000. One State Department official says "this figure was put at the top

end of the possible range to avoid embarrassing the Cambodian government."

The only significant source of increased numbers for the RCAF since that

time is Khmer Rouge defectors. But no one has suggested that the Khmer Rouge

brought 70,000 soldiers with them when they were defeated (if they had that many

Khieu Samphan would probably now be Prime Minister and Ta Mok Chief of Staff),

which is the difference between the figure of the State Department in 1997 and

that of the RCAF in 2001. The actual number of Khmer Rouge soldiers who have

joined the RCAF is obscured by corruption in the defection process, but most

estimates had put the fighting force of the Khmer Rouge at between 5,000

and10,000 before it collapsed. Some estimates were even lower.


after spending $42 million of scarce aid money - enough to dig 42,000 wells to

provide clean water to Cambodian villages or to build 2,100 "Hun Sen" schools,

far more than the entire budget for health in Cambodia - the end result of the

demobilization program will be to "reduce" the size of Cambodia's army to an

official figure that is probably two and a half times greater than the number

now actually serving as soldiers. In fact, RCAF could actually go out and

recruit tens of thousands of new soldiers to fill the empty uniforms of its

ghosts and still not exceed the official figure accepted by donors.


who are these non-existent soldiers and why does the government keep them on the

rolls? Some are retirees. In anticipation of the demobilization program in 1997

the government stopped retiring soldiers so that donors would bear the cost of

pensioning them off. The AFP story of October 18 announcing the beginning of

demobilization speaks volumes about the seriousness of this program: "'I am very

happy that I can now lead a life of an ordinary man with my family,' said

71-year-old Pen Kim Sath who said he had spent 26 years of his life serving the

army. Bou Rem, 65, a father of five, said he did not resent being shedded from

the military ranks. "The war is now over and I am also old, so I prefer to do

something which is more appropriate for me,' Bou Rem said.


Others being "demobilized" are disabled and have not worked as soldiers

for years.

Most of the rest are "ghosts," whose salaries are collected -

in a practice dating to the Lon Nol era - by their commanders and shared upwards

with their superiors.

No RCAF officer interviewed denied that there are

large numbers of non-existent soldiers in RCAF. Many point to the immediate

post-UNTAC era as the genesis of the current ghost problem, when the CPP and

FUNCINPEC went on a largely fake recruiting frenzy to bolster their side's

numbers in anticipation of formal integration of their forces in RCAF. Diplomats

and the UN watched as this process unfolded and did virtually nothing to stop

it. Now they are literally paying the price to clean up this


Collecting the salaries of ghosts is only part of the incentive for

inflating the numbers. Soldiers are issued with a wide variety of supplies each

year, from rice and shoes to shirts and underwear - and guns. But ghost soldiers

don't eat and don't wear clothes. Senior military and government officials

profit gloriously from this con. Companies close to senior military and

political figures sell these goods to the army at inflated prices. As one of

Cambodia's most powerful businessmen says, "For instance, a shirt costs $8 but

the army pays $21. Shoes cost $2-$3 but they pay $8-$10. By law they are

supposed to bid but they rarely do it."

When ghosts are involved,

sometimes these goods are actually delivered, after which they are sold in

private markets by the senior officers who receive them. Other times they are

not delivered at all and sold for a second time by the suppliers to private


The World Bank's Representative, Bonaventure Mbida-Essama,

argues that there were no ghosts in the pilot program and there will be no

ghosts in the full demobilization program - basing his conviction on the fact

that somebody shows up to demobilization ceremonies while ignoring all the

possibilities for creating false identities.

But whether demobilization

is real or fake hardly matters to the creator of the ghosts. They profit in

either case. If a ghost is demobilized, the creator takes the $240 severance pay

offered under the program to each demobilized soldier; if a ghost is not

demobilized the creator can continue to collect the salary the ghost continues

to receive and the clothing he continues not to wear.

Simple economics

may be the reason whyHun Sen boldly told the pre-CG meeting last year that

instead of demobilizing 55,000 soldiers as previously agreed, the demobilization

program would only involve 30,000, leaving RCAF with 100,000 troops. No military

justification for this number was offered, because there is none. Most military

analysts believe that Cambodia needs an army of no more than 40,000. Some

suggest that a professional force of 20,000 would be sufficient given the lack

of external threats.

One diplomat at the pre-CG meeting said: "This did

not sit well with the donors and on the spot the Japanese ambassador asked a few

nasty questions. Hun Sen did not appreciate this and said that the government's

view was that the donors should first come up with the money to demobilize the

30,000 he was proposing. But this was a completely arbitrary number.

Nevertheless, that was how it was left.

In the end the Japanese

ambassador's reaction was not the considered decision of his government, as

Japan has agreed to give $10 million to the program.

It is not clear if

the Bank, which is loaning $18 million (take note, campaigners for debt relief -

we will be protesting Cambodia's debt one day), Japan or other donors were aware

that in 1993 FUNCINPEC and CPP military commanders had agreed as a first step to

cut the then inflated RCAF of 130,000 to 65,000, a decision reiterated in 1996

but never implemented because of corruption and distrust between the parties. No

one has been able to explain why this figure was not used as a baseline for this


Just as alarming as false numbers and wasted money is a lack of

focus on demilitarization and disarmament of Cambodian society.


the demise of the Khmer Rouge and the simmering of the rivalry between the

armies of the CPP and FUNCINPEC within RCAF, there has never been a better

opportunity to address the violence that permeates Cambodian society. Nothing

poses a greater threat to the development of Cambodia in the short or long term

than the lawlessness that pervades most of the country. That lawlessness is

delivered at the barrel of a gun, and by members of the Cambodian armed forces.

NGO and UN reports are rife with examples of rural terror, land grabs,

extra-judicial executions, extortion and other illegal activities by the army.

Police are afraid to arrest and courts are afraid to prosecute and convict even

low-ranking soldiers for fear of violent repercussions.

This behavior

has been tolerated by the Cambodian government and senior military officials in

the name of force cohesion against the greater enemy of the Khmer Rouge. That

justification no longer exists. For the international community to miss this

opportunity to address the most basic of human rights and rule of law issues

will be unforgivable.

Yet this will almost surely be a missed


Neither the government nor donors have taken the

disarmament issue seriously.

In the government's official project

description of over 40 pages only two paragraphs are devoted to disarmament,

saying that "the army will collect all weapons, register them and store and/or

destroy those weapons".

There is no real plan and certainly no reason to

take this pledge seriously, given the many false starts in recent years in

addressing this issue. While demobilization is to take place in public in

"discharge centers", disarmament is to take place in private inside RCAF bases.

There is no guarantee that soldiers will be disarmed or that weapons stockpiles

will be managed securely or destroyed.

Observers have noted that in

public weapons destruction ceremonies many if not most of the weapons have been

old and almost useless. Given the corruption in RCAF there is no reason to think

these weapons, even if collected, will not be sold or given back to the same

soldier, who though demobilized may remain part of the same armed network, only

on an unofficial basis.

Demobilization should be an opportunity to weed

out some of the worst elements of the army. It is no secret who these people

are. Senior RCAF officials know what their subordinates are doing; many, if not

most, are profiting from it. The UN and NGOs have copious records on the worst

offenders. Western military attaches also know who these people are.


exchange for the $42 million, donors should have put great pressure on the

government for them to be demobilized. At the very least, pressure could have

been brought to rotate commanders with bad human rights records to different

parts of the country to disrupt the criminal networks that they control. Only in

this way can there be any hope that demobilized soldiers will actually be

demobilized, that their weapons will be handed in on a permanent basis, and that

if they engage in criminal activity as civilians they will be subject to the

rule of law. But donors are afraid to even raise these issues with Hun Sen and


It is also crucial to require demobilized soldiers to hand in

their uniforms, as fatigues carry a badge of extra-legality in Cambodia and give

the wearer a well founded sense of impunity. "Try to arrest me if I don't pay my

bill at a restaurant, or I steal your land, and you'll see what will happen" is

often the attitude of men in uniform in Cambodia. The wise comply, and the cycle

of lawlessness continues.

Instead of providing a set of civilian clothes

in exchange for a uniform, and making it an offense for a civilian to wear an

RCAF uniform, this issue has been ignored as donors have blithely accepted the

government's argument that demobilized soldiers need their uniforms to work

their fields.

If demobilization will fail to reduce the size of the army

or address basic human rights and rule of law issues, what about the third

purpose of the program, reducing expenditures on the army and redirecting

government resources to the social sector? For the answer to this look no

further than Ke Kim Yan, Commander in Chief of RCAF, who has made it clear that

he has no intention of decreasing the military budget.

While many would

argue that the last thing Cambodia should be spending money on now is the army,

so long as the basic premise of a traditional standing army is not challenged,

sound arguments can be advanced for his position - chiefly that if the army is

to professionalize it has to pay a living wage so that soldiers do not feel

obliged to moonlight or engage in criminal activities to survive. Even if force

size is cut in half, the bill for wages would remain the same or even increase

as the monthly salary is increased to say $50 per month from its current level

of $15-20. Of course, if the army were trimmed to the size necessary for

national defense - 20,000-40,000 - then cost savings could be achieved. But

cutting less than 25 percent of personnel, as planned in the demobilization

program, will not free up the resources necessary to create a peace dividend.

Added to all this is the military's large appetite for expensive new

hardware, which has only been whetted by the White Paper on defense co-authored

by Australia. When generals travel to Western and even neighboring countries,

such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, they get acute cases of tank, plane

and helicopter envy. Unless the army is disbanded, an idea which has not been

sufficiently explored, there is little doubt that significant resources will be

dedicated to the accoutrements of a modern, professional force as seen by their

foreign advisors. Goodbye peace dividend.

The government's history of

sleight of hand on budgetary matters should have made donors skeptical of this

last goal. Year after year the government has pledged to reduce military

spending and increase social sector spending, and even has the National Assembly

rubber stamp budgets that tend in that direction, but year after year they

overspend on the military and underspend on health, education and welfare. Add

to this the huge amount of illicit funds raised by the military through illegal

logging, smuggling and other businesses and the disparity between the military

and social spending is even greater than official figures indicate. And the

military benefit in other ways from an informal fiscal policy. One senior

general bragged to me how he had asked a senior government official for a tax

exemption on his farm so that he could pay the soldiers under his command a

higher salary. As a "favor", the official duly complied. With the budget in

Cambodia what you see is not what you get. Caveat emptor.

How did the

World Bank end up financing such a sham? In May 1999 at a donor's meeting

attended by government officials it painted itself into a corner when a member

of its post-conflict unit suggested without authorization that demobilized

soldiers would be paid $1,200 each. Word of this bounty spread like wildfire.

RCAF officers went on a recruiting binge, paying Cambodians to put their names

down on official registers as soldiers so that they could collect the $1,200. It

took almost two years for the World Bank and other donors to disentangle

themselves from this expectation. In doing so, donors became more compliant

about substantive issues, allowing the government to negotiate the lowest common

denominator agreement.

As a result, the Bank had no interest in

challenging the patently false numbers provided by the government. Bonaventure

Mdiba-Essama, a man clearly uncomfortable in defending this program, told me in

March when I presented him with the results of my investigation,"I am familiar

with these numbers. But it is neither my job nor my specialty to gather this

evidence. You can do background checks but that is not my job. I rely on

official sources and the military attaches of various embassies for my



It is not clear how other donors verified the numbers; the impression is of a

house of mirrors, with everyone pointing at the person across the table.

More important for the Bank than genuine demobilization was the appearance of

a demobilization program in Cambodia. The World Bank operations in Cambodia

piggy-backed on the "Enhanced Structural Reform Facility" (ESAF) provided by its

sister agency, the IMF (essentially cash to the National Bank of Cambodia). Part

of the ESAF agreement with the government was a demobilization program that

would shift fiscal policy from security to social programs. The IMF told the

Bank that since its program in Cambodia was conditional - meaning if the

government failed to meet all its conditions the IMF had to withdraw - the Bank

(as a programmatic agency) must succeed. The IMF had withdrawn once from

Cambodia in 1997 over illegal logging (in large part, ironically, carried out by

the military) and they did not want to do this again, since they had returned

without obtaining the stringent reforms of the forestry sector they had

originally demanded. To fail on demobilization would mean that they had failed

in Cambodia again. This would have made the IMF look toothless and would cause

them problems in other parts of the world. Demobilization has to happen, the

reality notwithstanding.

The fallback argument of some donors now is that

even though the numbers may not be real and actual demobilization may not occur,

at least a lot of very poor people will be assisted in some of rural Cambodia's

poorest areas. Who can argue against that? For starters, any professional in the

development field. The EU threw cash around in the mid-1990s through its $44

million "Prasac" program and was roundly criticized by the NGO Forum (its 1996

"Study on Differing Approaches to Development Assistance in Cambodia" should be

required reading for all donors) chiefly because there was no effective strategy

for its largesse. It then changed its approach and accepted the fact that a

dollar given in a well planned, targeted manner can go a long way and play a

part in long-term development, while a dollar given away carelessly will be

consumed - probably by an unintended beneficiary - and then lost to the

development cycle.

There are many valuable ways to spend $42 million in

Cambodia. Suggesting that it doesn't really matter if it reaches its intended

beneficiaries because there are so many poor people in Cambodia is negligent at

best, cynical at worst. Why not just drop the money from a helicopter over poor

villages and save all the high paid consultants' salaries?

It is simply

ludicrous to consider 71-year-old men and the disabled as "soldiers" to be

demobilized.   Each non-soldier who is demobilized represents a missed

opportunity to remove a real soldier from RCAF's bloated ranks, with all the

costs to law and order and the country's economic future this entails.  While

social welfare programs for the old and disabled are necessary in Cambodia, 

demobilization is not the appropriate program to address this need.  If the

World Bank is serious about helping these people - and it and the IMF are

notorious for throwing poor pensioners off the rolls around the world - it

should help fund a genuine, well-planned state pension and disability system.

Another of the Bank's failings has been its attempt to deal with an

inherently political issue on a technical basis. Issues like demobilization are

difficult, dirty and demoralizing, and success is far from predictable. As one

Bank employee told me at their Washington, DC headquarters, "The Bank is hardly

going to risk its entire program in Cambodia on this one subject, even if it is

the most important subject it is likely to deal with while in the country. It

cuts against the nature of this place. For most of our staff their chief goal is

to get countries to take out new loans. They are bankers and economists.

Demobilization is just another loan to them."

The Bank's inability to

successfully grapple with demobilization in Cambodia calls into question its

stated desire to recast itself as a global leader in governance issues. Perhaps

the Bank should stick to what it does best, whatever that may be. For as Mr

Mbida-Essama - clearly a well-intentioned, self-critical man, and perhaps

occasionally honest to a fault - also told me, "It is not given that development

assistance leads to development. That is not proven." The demobilization program

proves that point. Unfortunately, long after the donors have packed their bags,

the losers will be the Cambodian people.

Once again, through bluster and

hardball negotiating tactics, Hun Sen has for his own economic and political

interests run circles around a divided and confused donor community that appears

to lack vision or courage. What started out as a good and well-intentioned idea

- just as with the Khmer Rouge tribunal - has become an unrecognizable shadow of

the original. In other words, a ghost.

- Brad Adams, a human rights

lawyer in Cambodia from 1993-98, is writing a book on Cambodia.



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