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Fresh census targets RCAF’s ‘ghost soldiers’

DEFENCE Ministry officials say a more “thorough” census of the military currently under way will reduce the number of “ghost soldiers” on the government payroll.

Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said yesterday that officials were confident this year’s census would be more accurate than those carried out in previous years, in large part because of a new computerised storage system that includes information on each soldier.

“It is the annual census to find out the real number of soldiers ... by cutting the number of soldiers who have retired, died or did not appear,” he said.

As part of the census, which began last week, every soldier in the military will be required to show up in person at regional offices to verify their identities and salary claims.

Those who failed to do so by the end of the month would forfeit their salaries, Chhum Socheat said.

The problem of ghost soldiers – those who are on the military payroll yet serve no function – has plagued the country for years, sparked by the aftermath of the peace process in the early 1990s that saw fighters from various factions amalgamated into the national military.

But it remains unclear how many such soldiers there are. A 1999 survey eliminated more than 15,000 ghost soldiers and 160,000 nonexistent dependents from the records and declared a total force of 131,227, according to a 2008 World Bank report on a donor-funded demobilisation scheme. Yet those results were “widely discredited”, the report stated. By September 2002, Ministry of Economy and Finance statistics showed the defence payroll had been reduced to 112,359.

A security assessment on Cambodia released this year by defence publisher IHS Jane’s suggested that the military has an on-paper strength of 110,000, but a field strength of 70,000 troops.

Cheam Yeap, a senior parliamentarian with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the new census procedure was implemented after Prime Minister Hun Sen urged all institutions, including the military, to reduce “the number of people who do not have names”.

“We are doing this more thoroughly than before. No one can fake,” he said.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, described the problem of ghost soldiers as “critical”. “Many soldiers ... are not active and they’re not trained. Who are these people? I don’t think the government itself even knows,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY IRWIN LOY

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