THE Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) was constructed three years ago out of opposing
factional armies, creating a fragile base for the new coalition government to stand
on. The foundation has held, but the Royal Government's first public lecture on Cambodia's
defense policy last week shed light on changes still required by the RCAF before
the 1998 national elections.
The need for a smaller and more modern fighting force, paired with a lengthy offensive
against the Khmer Rouge and historical border tensions with Vietnam, combine to form
a critical point in the RCAF's development. Ek Serey-wath, secretary of state for
the Ministry of National Defense, stressed that the RCAF was committed to becoming
leaner, meaner and politically neutral.
"We have been able to organize step-by-step to make one army," he said.
"To be united is to have peace. If we have unity, we are strong."
A draft law approved by the Council of Ministers last week proposes to seperate the
military from government politics before the election. If passed, the law will prohibit
military personnel from holding seats in the National Assembly or actively participating
in party politics. The measure will allow members of the military to support a party,
but they must choose between their political and military careers.
The law proposes a dramatic change in the Cambodian political landscape. Many politicians
are currently RCAF generals, especially at the provincial level, and even the Prime
Ministers hold military rank.
In the quest for a unified army and citizenry, Sereywath left no doubt that the Khmer
Rouge are by far the largest thorn in the government's side.
"Our defense policy is based on Pol Pot. To strengthen the unity of all Cambodia,
this is the key element."
RCAF analysts have concluded that the Khmer Rouge have lost a considerable amount
of power and support in past years, Sereywath said. Official government estimates
put the KR military strength at no more than 2,000 troops, down from about 10,000
before the 1993 elections.
But this number may be under-estimated, and the failed attempt to take Pailin over
the past dry season indicates the Khmer Rouge are stronger than the government is
willing to admit, according to independent military observers.
"Two thousand is a little low," one Western military observer said. "I
think between 2,000 and 5,000 are in the (KR) military, and about the same number
again in a militia."
Although Pailin is not under government control, the RCAF holds positions as close
as 10 km to the city. The observer said that having to wait out the rains is a setback
for government forces, but they should eventually be able to overwhelm the much smaller
Khmer Rouge army.
"From the pure military view, I think the past dry season was 80 percent successful,"
he said. "It should be logical that next dry season they will continue to go
one step further and take Pailin."
Sereywath said the capture of the Khmer Rouge stronghold will be a huge step in the
direction of lasting internal stability. Except for "a small problem" with
Hanoi over the Vietnam/Cambodia border, he said, Cambodia enjoys excellent relations
with its neighbors.
This positive outlook has Cambodia already committing itself to reducing the size
of its military by as much as one-third by the end of 1998. But the demobilization
and retraining of soldiers is a daunting task that is further complicated by deeply
ingrained corruption within the RCAF.
The Royal Government maintains that RCAF troop strength is about 130,000 soldiers,
although even defense officials admit this number is inflated. Chum Sambath, a Ministry
of National Defense spokesman, said troop strength is between 130,000 and 90,000,
and Western observers estimated the army has about 90,000 able-bodied soldiers.
The wide range of estimates stems from a payroll system that breeds corruption. Military
funding is based solely on the number of soldiers in a unit and does not take the
entire unit's specific supply needs into account. Commanders often inflate their
payroll requests with inactive, wounded or deceased "ghost soldiers" just
to make ends meet.
Soldiers' pitifully low wages compound the problem, allowing corruption to seep down
to all levels of the military. Interviews with observers and RCAF soldiers determined
that monthly salary ranges between 50,000 and 80,000 riel ($19 to $31), depending
on rank and number of dependents. An RCAF captain stationed in Phnom Penh said he
makes 80,000 riel a month, and that is not enough to pay his bills. "The salary
is not enough to support my family, but I like to be a soldier for my country,"
he said. "My wife has a job and helps with the money."
Military observers said the unlivable wages undermines discipline and causes many
soldiers to seek other ways to make money. Often the easiest source of extra income
is to extort bribes from travelers at isolated road and water checkpoints.
Soldiers and military leaders both say the extortion is not always being committed
by the RCAF. Former soldiers, Khmer Rouge and bandits who pose as legitimate soldiers
are all trying to make a quick dollar from Khmers and foreign tourists.
But the demobilization plan and the prevailing rhetoric of the Government and defense
officials suggest that the RCAF is addressing its budgetary and disciplinary problems.
"Frankly speaking, we are not able to monitor everything," Sereywath said.
"Some soldiers are uneducated and lack discipline..., (but) we are making efforts
to reform the army and make it more effective."
The first phase of the demobilization plan is to remove the injured, old and "ghost"
soldiers from the payroll. By 1998 the military is expected to be streamlined down
to 85,000 actual soldiers, which will free up money to raise salaries and provide
better equipment and training for the troops.
"I think it will be better more and more," Sambath said. "When we
solve the economic problems and the training problems are solved, the corruption
will be reduced."
A disciplined and educated RCAF will be crucial as the country moves toward the national
elections. If the draft law is passed, politics and the military will be legally
seperated, but soldiers are still heavily partisan and mostly report to a commander
of the same party.
"(The draft law) is a big step toward democracy, but in practice it will take
more time," a military observer said. "Now the high-ranking military are
the political figures. You cannot change the mentality in one day."