OBSERVERS have criticised the government’s proposed increase in defence and security spending, saying it ignores more pressing concerns and risks the “militarisation” of Cambodian politics and society.
The 2010 draft budget, approved by the Council of Ministers on October 28, showed a 24.2 percent increase in the country’s defence and security expenditures from $223 million this year to $277 million in 2010.
Of the $1.97 billion contained in the draft budget, defence spending makes up 14 percent, compared with just 1.7 percent for agriculture, 1.7 percent for rural development and 0.7 percent for maintaining water resources.
Observers said the gulf separating military and social spending ignored Cambodia’s developmental priorities.
“[This increase] cannot be justified, considering the combined spending on agriculture and rural development is less than 5 percent,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “It’s an indication of where the current government’s priorities stand.”
Ou Virak said a rise might be justified if the country was facing a serious external threat, but that the ongoing border dispute with Thailand was being used as an excuse to bolster the strength of the armed forces.
“The tensions with Thailand are playing into what Hun Sen wants, which is to militarise the state,” he said. If the government wishes to reform the military, he added, a better route would be to make sure it is “smaller, more professional and under civilian leadership”.
Political analyst Chea Vannath said the proposed increases flew in the face of Cambodia’s recent tumultuous history.
“The military budget is always higher compared with the proportion of other ministries, [but] it’s supposed to be the other way around,” she said. “We have to remember our past experience of destruction. The military is not the answer to the Cambodian present and future.”
In last year’s draft budget, the government proposed doubling military spending to $500 million following the escalation of the military standoff with Thailand over Preah Vihear temple but backed down after donors expressed concerns.
The most recent figures in the CIA World Factbook suggest that Thailand spends about $10 billion on its military, while Vietnam spends about $6 billion. Thailand’s GDP is about 20 times as high as Cambodia’s.
Cheam Yeap, chairman of the National Assembly’s Commission on Finance and Banking, denied that the 2010 increase was related to the Thai border dispute, saying it would be used to raise salaries and improve conditions in the army.
“The increase in military spending is intended to restructure the military to better defend the country,” he said, adding that it would be matched by increases for “priority” sectors such as education, health, agriculture, water resources and rural development.
Cheam Yeap said the draft budget will be sent to the National Assembly.
Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party, applauded the increase in spending – from $1.75 billion this year to $1.97 in 2010 – but questioned that the government could pay for it.
“The budget division is still unfair, as corruption continues to be a problem,” he said, adding that the loss of funds from corruption and misuse was taking a bite out of the government’s bottom line.
Ministry of Defence spokesman Chhum Socheat could not be reached on Tuesday.