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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - RCAF adds more stars while demob debate simmers

RCAF adds more stars while demob debate simmers

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With the demobilization program on hold, debate on the state of the RCAF is still a contentious issue.

The opposition has criticized the government's continued promotion of military personnel,

despite calls to revive stalled efforts to demobilize the country's oversized armed

forces.

The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) appointed another 214 officers to the rank

of one-, two- and three-star generals in early February.

Previously, the government has acknowledged the need to reduce the size of its military.

Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party MP, said the government has too much to lose if they

cut the armed forces down from an estimated 110,000 soldiers to about 70,000; a figure

the international community and government agreed is ample for Cambodia in a time

of peace.

"I think it will be impossible for the government to think seriously about demobilizing

because the army is the backbone of totalitarianism," Chhay said. "It's

the tool used to control the population, not to serve the people."

Tea Banh, co-Minister of National Defense, justified the increase in the number of

senior officers by saying demobilization depends on World Bank funding, while promotions

were decided by the Ministry of National Defense.

"[The officers] have worked for a long time and it's time for them to be rewarded

through promotion," Banh said.

The World Bank-funded demobilization program stalled in 2003 when a $6.9 million

assistance package became tainted with corruption relating to the purchase of motorbikes

for soldiers. The government paid back $2.8 million of the misspent funds to the

World Bank in January this year.

General Soun Samnang, head of the International Relations Department at the Ministry

of National Defense, said the government is committed to demobilizing the armed forces,

but it will take time.

"We have to do it step by step, we can achieve it in the next five years, but

the defense budget is very limited," Samnang said.

He said the demobilization process needed to include military officers from the top

ranks as well.

"We had experience in the past that most of the demobilized soldiers have been

targeted in the lower levels, not including the generals, but this time our Defense

Strategic Review [2002] recommended that we revise that policy," he said. "It

means we need to demobilize the people at every hierarchy of the military."

Former Australian defense attache to Cambodia David Mead said the RCAF already has

enough generals to support an army three times its size.

At the same time as discussing downsizing, the RCAF are awaiting approval from the

National Assembly for their proposed compulsory military service legislation.

If approved, Samnang said, the compulsory service would be "selective".

They would conscript only when necessary and draw soldiers evenly from across the

country.

"When we downsize the military to 70 or 80 thousand, we need to start from that

point and build a fresh military force. We need to bring the young, capable, competent

people to the military, and then we take the older, unqualified people out,"

he said.

Chhay disagreed and said the call for compulsory military service is the government's

answer to the unemployment crisis facing young people.

"We don't need soldiers who are just going to be used to plant mangoes for generals

who own hundreds of thousands of [hectares of] farm land, or be forced to protect

illegal smuggling or illegal logging," Chhay said.

One point agreed on by all parties is the need to up-skill the soldiers before they

are returned to civilian life and the provision of land is the key for this.

But the best method to do this remains in question.

The World Bank demobilization program offered soldiers a $1,200 package in the form

of medical health checks, and a choice of a motorbike, sewing machine or generator

to create an income to support their families.

Brigadier General Chum Tong Heng, director of the Development Department of Command

in Chief of RCAF, said the main point for demobilized soldiers is their need for

vocational skills.

"Giving gifts has a problem, and giving money also has a problem - the best

way is to find something else to help them, help them to find skills," Heng

said.

"I'm concerned about soldiers finding jobs after leaving the military. Depending

on farming isn't enough to support their family, because they have been away for

a long time, and when they go back there is no land for them."

Tong Heng brought out 10 technical manuals covering various farming methods that

are to be given to soldiers before they leave the forces.

The manuals give detailed instruction on harvesting rice, growing vegetables, pig

farming, duck and chicken farming and fishing.

He said unfortunately they were not printed in time for the first 15,000 demobilized

soldiers, but they are ready for the second phase if the program begins again.

Chhay suggested an independent expert be brought in to administer funds and monitor

the soldiers' transition to civilian life.

"We need to give these soldiers land and promote soldiers into agriculture with

proper education to allow them to do farming - it will be more than just a handout

of money," he said.

Samnang said it was not the program's fault that caused the World Bank to suspend

demobilization in February 2003.

"I haven't seen any problems emerge, except the scandal, but that is not a reflection

of the program, this is a technical problem with a few people," he said.

Results from a November World Bank investigation into the scandal led to the dismissal

of five individuals and four companies from the program.

(Translation by Cheang Sokha)

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