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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Reforming the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces: Leadership is the key

Reforming the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces: Leadership is the key


Military reform : after 30 years of civil war, the Kingdom now faces a future with minimal domestic or international threats. Downsizing a bloated and underpaid army poses an enormous challenge for the government, one that will require strong leadership if any progress is to be made.

T o date, the significant changes proposed in the Defence White Paper - Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia 2000, along with the Royal Government's demobilization plan, sit near the bottom of the 'in tray' while an ageing Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) 'soldiers on', consuming large chunks of the country's scarce budget resources, supporting more generals than would be needed for an armed force THREE times the size and engaging in illegal activities including pilfering of the nation's precious natural resources, particularly its forests.

The government has demonstrated clear intent for military reform. Quoting Prime Minister Hun Sen in the White Paper: "The reform of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces must be enhanced so that it can be a well-organized armed force with appropriate size, decent wages and allowances, and sufficient ability to perform its defence duties by contributing to national construction and development, and provision of assistance to people suffering from various disasters."

Did the military reform agenda die in the corruption surrounding demobilization and associated World Bank funding? Can it be revived? How should it proceed? Can the RCAF move from being a force that only meets limited political needs while supporting the business and other interests of its patron generals, to being the well-organized armed force described above by the Prime Minister?

I will get to these issues, but first I wish to paint a picture of the real situation in the RCAF today. My description is restricted to the major component, the Army, although the Navy and Air Force need to be part of the reform process.

Service in the RCAF

At the moment, the average pay for a soldier, depending on rank, is about $20 per month with a 20-plus kilogram rice allowance. That soldier, single or married, cannot live on that amount, so how does he work and survive in such a system and what are the forms of service that sustain him and at the same time sustain 'the Generals'? Here I use the term 'General' to describe a soldier's patron, at whatever rank, although his patron is certainly likely to be of General rank as there are more than 400 in the country to choose from!

In and around Phnom Penh there are many of what I would describe as full-time serving soldiers. They are in specialist units such as the Parachute Brigade, the Engineers, the Military Police, the Bodyguard Unit and so on. These units receive additional training, equipment and resources to sustain them in acting as the government's prime ready reaction and support elements. However, even in these units, a system of sub-contracting for profit is common and unit vehicles and assets are often used to provide additional sustenance for the unit and its senior officers.

In the case of the Military Police, some have mission orders which allow them to be employed and paid by private organizations, such as supporting enforcement for conservation NGOs. Once in receipt of a living wage, the individual then never sees his government pay and will likely be paying some of his new earnings to the General who facilitated his employment. This is a system he is accustomed to, particularly as he had to buy his job in the first place. Rank is similarly bought.

The Military Engineers operate partially as a business and receive contracts for road-building and mine clearing. They are reasonably well-equipped but unfortunately (for the forests) have found the need to be more 'self sustaining' by becoming involved in illegal forest activity associated with their road building and road repair tasks.

In sum, the staff of these specialist units (allowing for those sub-contracted) serve largely on a full-time basis. But how many of the believed 110,000 still on the RCAF books work full-time on military duty, and what of the rest?

I estimate that as few as 35,000 to 40,000 may be classified as on full-time duty and, as I'll explore, there are many forms of part-time soldiering in this army.

The many headquarters
in Phnom Penh: On a coffee break?

In the various headquarters in Phnom Penh there are apparently almost 10,000 souls, but I challenge anyone to find them on any given day (without plenty of notice). They may be working as moto-taxi drivers, guards or supporting the wife in running a small business. In many cases, if their off base earnings are adequate, they will do a deal with their patron General and for a small percentage of their salary only turn up for work when required.

Where there is a requirement for essential headquarters and other staff to be employed on a full-time basis, the General or patron must provide them with enough money or other resource supplements (perhaps free fuel or other military commodities), so they can live.

Patrons and clients

Some Generals within the patronage system would argue that there is no need for soldiers to be paid more than they currently earn. The underlying reason is that if all military (and public servants for that matter) were to receive a living wage, the patronage system with its nepotistic and political undertones, would come under real threat. In the military, Generals would then need to learn how to manage and command based on leadership and example; difficult if you bought your way to the top.

Service out in the provinces

In a grossly over-strength, factionalized, under-resourced, under-paid army, with no Khmer Rouge or other significant treats, many former serving soldiers have simply gone back to the family farm from which they came (or perhaps were conscripted from in the time of the 'dry season offensives' of the 90's). They may be still on the books, are probably not paid and may well have been the subject of demobilization, (had it happened or when it happens).

In numerous cases, and this applies to many units across the country, soldiers remain on some sort of call. Serving soldiers from 11th Brigade (based in Kampot Province) living as farmers in Thma Bang in Koh Kong Province say "The boss will call me on the radio if he needs me!" Apart from the illegality of this service, it does raise the issue of the viability of an on call or part-time reserve force as a reform option; the call out system is obviously well oiled! (Note: You need a mission order to be anywhere other than posted to your unit and the same applies to the carriage of weapons away from your normal unit operational area.)

How is the army structured?

The organization of the Army is based on a number of Phnom Penh-based specialist units, and there are Infantry Brigades of various sizes reporting to the Army Headquarters and the High Command Headquarters in Phnom Penh but physically located in one of the Six Military Regions or Zones into which the country is divided. The Military Regions provide administrative support to these Brigades and also have some of their own assigned units. The provinces within each Region are designated Sub-Operational Zones and the units in these provinces report through a Local Headquarters to the Regional Headquarters. For example, the Sub-Operational Zone encompassed by Koh Kong Province is under the control of Headquarters of the 3rd Military Region which is based in Kampong Speu town. In summary there are lots of headquarters, lots of senior officers and a long chain of command.

The Koh Kong example

In Koh Kong Province there are about 1,300 sub-operational zone soldiers organized into a Headquarters and a number of battalions, commanded by a Colonel.

How are these soldiers employed?

Apart from border defence, which for under-paid soldiers and officers comes with its own temptations, there is little real soldiering for many of the 1,300 to do. They do have a sort of policing and general protection function along the new Route 48, but with little training, poor equipment, minimal transport and few resources, any protection they provide is localized. It could also be asked why are they carrying out a function which should be rightly undertaken by police?

So what do they, and just as importantly their families do, to live?

Soldiers have been used to guard forestry concessions and are paid by the concessionaire. Many say they are not paid by the Army when so employed. Soldiers have been allowed to have second jobs, such as being involved in the illegal cutting of yellow vine and the manufacture of yellow vine powder. Some have been contracted out to illegally clear the forest estate. Some live off the forest estate. Of course there are the usual checkpoints for the taxing of individuals and goods - particularly illegal goods, like forest products and wildlife.

However, spare a thought for the Koh Kong Province Military Commander who is now in a very difficult position. He has his own business interests, as many senior officers do, and he has sub-contracted as many of his soldiers as possible as guards etc, but with such numbers requiring livelihood supplementation in a province where illegal forestry and land clearing activity is being threatened by zealous conservationists, providing that supplementation has been made far more difficult.

Given border 'protection' and other functions, he would probably say he has work for only about half of his soldiers. Demobilization was planned for less than 200 but even if 500 could be demobilized many would be unwilling to volunteer because they consider the package, as formerly proposed, insufficient or expect they could be better sustained, in the long term, by their patron Commander.

The training provided by this local commander has little to do with military capacity. There are no practice range shoots, because there is no ammunition for such activities. His training focuses on political indoctrination or teaching soldiers farming and the raising of farm animals. Many of his soldiers are old. A number of his men, both young and old, are sick, the province being notable for its very high incidence of HIV/AIDS. He continues to run up against the law and the conservationists. The pressure on this command is about how to sustain those livelihoods.

The RCAF primary task : livelihood generation?

In many Provinces, commanders try to solve the livelihood problem through the disposition of units. Albeit based on some pretext of security and protection, they establish posts and units in the most likely self-sustaining locations, astride taxable roads and in the forest estates.

The land is cleared illegally for the unit site. Timber to house the unit and its families is cut illegally. Other land is cleared for subsistence farming, or subsequently for sale. Wood is cut to feed charcoal kilns, or is sold. Wildlife is hunted and so on. The unit with its meager salary and rice allowance becomes self-sufficient and the patron General is happy.

But should soldiering in the RCAF really be about generating self-sustaining livelihoods and supporting the business interests of the Generals?

Even the White Paper hints at a need for some sort of self-sustainability for soldiers and their families. In the small section devoted to "Conditions of Service" it states; "With national stability, self-reliant living conditions based mainly on agricultural crops might be made, perhaps by allowing soldiers to cooperate with investment units in the agro-industrial field."

Is that section of the White Paper really describing how serving professional soldiers should be employed; "allowing soldiers to cooperate with investment units", or does it better describe a demobilization system where ex-soldiers become farmers and work in agro-industries?

Demobilization plans of the past

Such a demobilization plan was the basis, in 1994, of the General Staff being allocated about 6% of the then available concession land (more than 700,000 hectares across the six Military Regions), for demobilization/development use. The plan then was that some of the land would be allocated to demobilized soldiers in the form of subsistence farming plots under some form of leasehold title and the remaining land would be designated development land and leased to agro-industries that would provide viable employment for those who had been demobilized. A pilot program was started on Route 4 near Pich Nil.

I am unsure of the current status of much of that land, which I believe was allocated on long term lease to the General Staff and although, in all fairness, you may find numbers of soldiers farming part of it, will the Generals now be willing to return it to be used for the purpose for which it was designed: providing land and jobs to demobilized soldiers?

It is unfortunate that the events of July 97 very much moved the use of this land from the 'in' to the 'pending' tray but now the land and the plan has likely been consigned to a 'dead folio' in the bottom of a General Staff filing cabinet.

Current Needs: An affordable respected Armed Force

Given what I consider is the real picture of service in the RCAF and using the White Paper as a planning platform, at a time when Cambodia has no clearly identified military threats, surely the government should consider force levels based on the number of physically fit, well-motivated, properly trained, properly equipped and supported personnel that the Defence budget can afford.

With RCAF strength at about 110,000, after already removing upwards of 32,000 "ghost soldiers", planned demobilization (were it to continue) would still leave the country with an under-paid and under-trained Army of over 80,000, with more than 400 senior officers, one star (brigadier general) and above.

That is one general for every 200 of lesser ranks, or if you take my figures for full-time soldiers (about 40,000), one general for every 100. It is worth noting that in many armies an infantry company has about 100 soldiers and is commanded by a major or a captain, and in those armies you don't buy your rank, you earn it based on merit. To provide some sort of comparison, the Australian Army has less than 30,000 full-time serving soldiers and even with the complex nature of the array of international and national tasks it undertakes, is commanded by around 40 generals. I am unaware of any senior RCAF officers identified for demobilization.

The budget available for a properly paid and trained full-time professional armed force will obviously not support a post-demobilization 80,000-man force. However it might well support an RCAF of about one quarter of its once paid strength; down from 140,000-plus in the 90's to between 30,000 to 35,000; with a significant reduction in the number of generals from more than 400 now, to something less than 100.

Restructuring: The needs

The size of the full-time trained force, in a time of limited threat, should relate to affordability within a very limited budget, the need for ready reaction and being able to provide aid to the civil community in time of emergency. It must be based on salaries for the full-time component that constitute a living wage (set at a suggested $80 per month for a soldier with a sliding scale depending on rank). It is considered that this force would be in the order of 35,000. A restructured RCAF needs to be based on threats; few are identified.

Some restructuring has occurred, with Divisions being redesignated Brigades, and some under-strength Brigades have been merged. Some units have also been moved away from lucrative forest and border areas and into consolidated base locations.

But much more needs to be done and under-resourced, under-trained province border protection battalions should be the first to be removed from the full-time service organization. They should be replaced by well-resourced border protection police perhaps reinforced by the better trained and resourced Military Police.

Border control and the illegal cross-border movement of goods and people must rate as the country's highest threat; lack of control of the country's currently porous borders having far-reaching international and economic implications.

Specific changes

Force organization should be reviewed for all units remaining in the RCAF. Force levels should reflect threats, budget availability and achievable roles and tasks.

For the Air Force the budget cannot currently afford fighter aircraft, nor does the threat indicate any need for them.

The Navy should concentrate its resources on guarding Cambodia's territorial waters against a number of treats, including smuggling and illegal fishing. Coastal Defence and other Navy Marine and brown water units are superfluous in relation to meeting these threats.

Too many headquarters and too many generals

The following changes would also help facilitate a large reduction in the number of headquarters and senior officers. They are:

a. The merging of the Ministry of National Defence and the High Command Headquarters into a single, strategic level headquarters.

b. The reduction of the number of headquarters, for example the Artillery Headquarters in the High Command and the Artillery Headquarters in the General staff could be merged.

c. Eliminating the practice of having several Deputy Commanders/Deputy Directors at every level of command.

d. Continuing the merging of Brigades so that each Brigade has a more realistic strength and there are fewer of them.

Call out the Reserve

A part-time Reserve Force should be formed. It could be mobilized in times of civil or national emergency and for an annual period of training to keep up skill levels. Initially, the period of mobilization could be up to one month per year, at an appropriate pay rate. The training should be coordinated and conducted at Military Region Headquarters.

The reserve force would incorporate: High cost tank, armoured and artillery units; and all sub-operational-zone (province) battalions and units; Sub-Operational-Zone Headquarters should be manned by a very small full-time headquarter element only.

Protect the borders

Consideration should be given to the role of the Royal Gendarmerie being changed to reinforce the Border Protection Police Force and to replace relatively untrained Sub-Operational-Zone border battalions in this critical task.

Budget savings: Privatization

As part of the restructuring process, all soldiers who are sub-contracted to non-official guarding and related duties, such as guards for forestry concessions, private individuals, regional airports, factories etc should be discharged from the RCAF and those functions should be privatized. Private companies can provide these services using ex-soldiers, on a fee for service basis, with no cost to the country's budget.

Civil emergencies

Units should be trained and equipped for roles which support flood and disaster relief.

Natural resource protection

Some ex-soldiers could be retrained to contribute to a specialist organization (perhaps on the lines of the border protection police), charged with protecting the nation's natural resources.


Demobilization should proceed with or without donor support, perhaps on the lines of that previously piloted in 1994/95.

An allocation of long-lease agricultural land for demobilized soldiers should be made as an incentive to demobilize and should form an essential part of their package. It should utilize former development/demobilization military concessions.

Any planned demobilization should incorporate the demobilization of a proportionate number of senior officers without regard to background or political affiliation. A force of 35,000 should need less than 100 generals (one star and above). Demotion across the board, as previously occurred, should not be considered as an alternative to the demobilization of a proportionate number of senior officers. Officer manning should be based on the manning needs of the restructure not the selling of rank or systems of patronage.

Health and fitness

The Government (and here donor support would be appropriate), should fund a 100% health check of the RCAF including testing for HIV, Hepatitis B and TB to identify a base line figure of fit officers and soldiers from which a trained full-time force can be drawn. Age criteria, based on rank, e.g. soldiers should only serve to age 40, lieutenants to 45 and so on, should also be applied when considering who should be retained.

(Note: Given the likely age and state of health of many in the currently serving force, short and long-term plans for new recruitment, to replace wastage, need to be made and acted upon.)

Donors associated with the health care sector should consider contributing to the support of specific medical care and assistance for soldiers subsequently demobilized because they are not fit enough to be retained in the core full-time-service force.

Support from foreign armies

The French, the Australians and others have been laying the foundation for a new RCAF through the training of a junior officer corps and through the training and education of senior officers and specialists, both in Cambodia and overseas. Such support, and that which resulted in documents like the White Paper, should continue. But the desperately needed new breed of young officers won't be retained unless the RCAF can provide challenging tasks and decent conditions of service.

The talent is there. I have observed the training of Cambodian officers and non-commissioned officers at a tough Australian Jungle Training School and these men were as good as any foreign soldiers seen at the school.

Given the resources, when the task was challenging and the leadership good, they delivered!

Attracting the talent

Decent wages and allowances, proper training and full and worthwhile employment would surely attract more than enough fit young men and women, as the Prime Minister puts it, to "an armed force which is absolutely loyal to the nation, respects the Constitution, is well disciplined, is polite, is morally clean, respects and loves the people, is capable of fulfilling the defence of independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and of maintaining and strengthening peace, stability and social security order".

The simple choice

The choice is simple, even if planning and implementation are more complex. The Royal Government can either sustain a military that will continue to degrade the nation's natural resources and sustain the business interests of the Generals or it can reform to create a professional armed force where being military is the business and a good part of that business is to protect the nation and its resources.

Leadership is the key to change. Strong government leadership and direction will be required to initiate change, and within the Ministry of National Defence and the RCAF a team of new and young leaders will be required to implement it.

Col D.J. Mead (Ret.) was the Australian Defense Attache in Phnom Penh from 1994 to 1997. From 1999 to 2003 he was the Country Director/Cambodia for Conservation International.



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