Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The delicate challenge of downsizing RCAF

The delicate challenge of downsizing RCAF

The delicate challenge of downsizing RCAF


Young RCAF soldiers face an uncertain future. Photo by Masaru Goto.

THE concept of military demobilization is simple - select 55,000 soldiers, give them

$1200 each and say good bye.

The reality, say military sources and foreign experts, is far different. They say

it will easily take five years to cut back Cambodia's military, whilst at the same

time trying to organize it into a force to deal with Cambodia's real rather than

imagined threats.

And during the process they say that the losers - higher and middle ranking

officers who will be forced from their positions of power, prestige and substantial

income - will be fighting the changes with a vigor rarely seen in their military


There is no shortage of people who will be disappointed by the restructuring. RCAF

boasts two officers for every soldier, including more than 2000 generals.

Western military forces generally work on a ratio of one officer to seven to eight

soldiers - the number of generals is also somewhat lower.

Everyone spoken to cited Hun Sen as the driving force behind the restructuring, and

said it was a genuine attempt to push through reform, not just window dressing for

the benefit of donors.

"He is serious, very serious. It is like the logging ban - when that was announced

I was skeptical about it, but now the trade has stopped," said one diplomat.

"It is the same with military restructuring. If Hun Sen wants it to happen it

will happen - and is happening."

Hun Sen has said that the end of the war with the Khmer Rouge and the cost of maintaining

a large army are the main reasons behind the changes.

Military sources said that another reason is the social instability generated by

having a large armed underpaid group in society.

An example of this came from Commander of Special Military Region Zero General Prum

Din who said that he had been told to start looking for accommodation for his troops

away from Phnom Penh.

Currently the headquarters and barracks are in the heart of the capital, and it is

a situation that even concerns General Din.

He said when there was fighting against the Khmer Rouge he could send his troops

up to the front lines, but that now they are all returning to the barracks. He said

he was told by his superiors that the Government did not want a lot of under-occupied

troops wandering the streets of the capital scaring residents.

A further reason put forward by a diplomat was that it is part of the overall plan

of Hun Sen to stabilize the country and move it forward. He said that military restructuring

should be looked at in conjunction with issues such as the logging ban, the gun ban,

and the crackdown on casinos.

However, the restructuring is likely to be Hun Sen's most difficult and risky project.

With military co-operation between Cambodia and most other countries suspended, there

is little foreign input other than World Bank money for paying off demobilized troops

- a bill which could run as high as $1billion.

There are two broad areas that need to be looked at.

The first part is a plan - a white paper - for the future of the armed forces, and

a risk assessment. Co-Defense Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath said that they had

been given some advice on how to produce the document by the Australian Embassy.

Australian defense attaché Dougall McMillan said that he was providing some

advice on the logistics of drafting of a white paper but emphasized it was nothing

to do with Australian defense co-operation. He said it was just part of his role

as the defense attaché.

The second area to be dealt with is actual demobilization. With the information in

the white paper the military can decide who it needs to keep to fulfill that role,

and who it can lose. For this process there is World Bank funding.

The white paper is being drafted by a committee of senior RCAF staff with input from

civilian advisors, as well as relevant ministries such as Finance, Foreign Affairs

and Prime Ministerial advisors.

A new policy and planning department within the general services branch has also

been created to assist.

The department is recruiting staff from RCAF who have been through overseas staff

colleges; civilians with good policy backgrounds are also being brought in.

One of the key stages in determining the future of RCAF is a risk assessment.

A risk assessment looks at what dangers there are to Cambodia and where they come

from. Military analysts said there was zero risk of invasion; however in the other

categories there were some identifiable risks and therefore possible roles for a

revamped RCAF.

These included protection of Cambodia's maritime territory, particularly if substantial

oil and gas reserves were discovered, guarding borders, illegal immigration and logging.

The broad policy changes in the first area and the moves towards a more professional

and non-aligned military have already caused some murmurs among senior RCAF staff.

Army commander Meas Sophea is said to have now accepted the overall premise that

the military will no longer set defense policy but rather will implement the policies

set out by the Government through the Ministry of Defense.

However, RCAF Commander-in-Chief Ke Kim Yan is understood to be unhappy with this

concept, seeing it as an erosion of his power.

He is also said to be unhappy about the budgetary savings aims of restructuring.

Kim Yan, who has a reputation of genuine concern for his troops' welfare, favors

radically reducing troop numbers but keeping the defense budget the same so that

he can push up salaries to a livable level.

He would like to see salaries of $50 a month for a private, and up to $2000 a month

for a general.

A defense analyst said that if this was agreed to, he would allow the Gendarmerie's

military police division to actually carry out their role of investigating and prosecuting

crime by the military.

Until now, such a role has been blocked by Yan who, realizing that soldiers' pay

is inadequate, has turned a blind eye to minor banditry and the operation of checkpoints.

There are also indications that military discipline is to be tightened prior to restructuring

with the appointment of General Sao Sokha to replace General Khien Savuth as Chief

of the Gendarm-erie.

General Sokha, who was in charge of military police during UNTAC, is believed to

be planning a crackdown on crime and corruption within RCAF.

At a lower level in RCAF there are also ructions, particularly in the provinces.

One idea being mooted to try to curb the 'warlord-style' military commanders in the

provinces is to bring provincial units under direct tactical control of RCAF headquarters.

This would then turn the regional and district commanders into administrators responsible

for feeding and housing troops, but would give them no power to order military operations.

And there are already moves afoot to curb the military strength of provincial commanders.

Tanks and artillery have been moved back to Kampong Speu, where they will be stored

until needed by new units. So far, this appears to have gone smoothly with only a

few tanks up near the Thai border still to be returned.

Recent political moves within the military have cemented Hun Sen loyalists into positions

of strength, with Funcinpec-aligned generals pushed into the background.

Of the 26 most senior positions, Funcinpec has been given only three slots - Lieutenant

General Khan Savoeun is deputy commander-in-chief, Major General Hun Phoeung is deputy

chief-of joint-staff, and Major General Mean Sarin is deputy army commander.

General Khuon Frang, a former deputy commander of the air force and now a Funcinpec

senator, was probably the most unlucky victim of those moves.

General Frang would be the most well qualified person to run the air force. He has

substantial aviation experience both civilian and military. However, the job went

to CPP-aligned Major General Soeung Samnang.

Probably the greatest unknown element in the restructuring is what input and influence

there will be from overseas. US and Australian input is still blocked as a matter

of policy by the respective governments following the July coup.

China has said it would provide some money to help with demobilization costs, which

indicates it supports the overall concept.

But it is unclear what the French position is and whether they are pushing a particular

line. There is some concern that they favor the retention of a large standing army

and might support such a move.

If so, it could provide a dangerous outlet and voice for those in RCAF, unhappy with

the process, to sabotage it.

Once the plan outlined in the white paper is decided on and the future of the military

set out, the next phase of the restructuring - demobilization - can get underway

in earnest.

Once completed, Prince Sisowath estimated that there would be 70,000 people employed

in the new look military - but by that time it would be 2003.

He said RCAF would then be restructured in time for the incoming Government following

the elections planned for that year.

He said it would be possible that the new Government might decide that Cambodia no

longer needed a 70,000 strong standing army and again cut it back.

But in the immediate future the first problem with shedding troops is that there

are no accurate figures for the size of the army. RCAF estimates that there are 148,000

troops on its payroll.

But that includes "non effective troops" - the disabled, the elderly and

the 'non-existent'.

Hun Sen advisor Om Yien Teng said that the non-existent troops could be culled very

quickly and provide immediate savings to the Government before even drawing on World

Bank funds for demobilization.

He estimated at least 20,000 soldiers did not exist, their pay being pocketed by

senior officers.

The first action therefore is to get an accurate registration of all RCAF staff.

From there, the list of people wanting to take up the demobilization offer can be

drawn up and they can be readied for civilian life.

Prum Dim said that he did not think there would be a shortage of takers, saying most

of his troops wanted to leave and the prospect of $1200 cash was a very strong inducement.

The findings of the white paper will determine which troops are actually eligible

for the offer.

With new structures and roles for RCAF it is likely that some specialist soldiers

will be retained for those positions.


  • Cambodia unveils new quarantine regulations

    The government has modified Covid-19 quarantine requirements, shortening the duration for, among others, Cambodian officials, foreign diplomats and delegations, investors and inbound travellers in general. According to an official notice signed by Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng late on October 16, quarantine length for Cambodian

  • Cambodia sets new Covid-19 quarantine rules

    The government has modified Covid-19 quarantine requirements, shortening the duration for, among others, Cambodian officials, foreign diplomats and delegations, investors and inbound travellers in general. According to an official notice signed by Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng late on October 16, quarantine length for Cambodian

  • Hun Sen: Cambodia set to fully reopen

    Prime Minister Hun Sen concludes that the October 5-7 Pchum Ben public holiday, during which many people either flocked to their hometowns for family reunion or gathered at tourist attractions across the country, has not caused an outbreak of Covid-19. In a special address to

  • Will Evergrande change the way Chinese developers do business in Cambodia?

    China’s property sector policy has exposed the grim financial condition of real estate developers including those operating in Cambodia, which raises questions over the viability of their projects and business going forward The dark blue netting draping over one of Yuetai Group Co Ltd’

  • Cambodia voted ‘world’s friendliest country’ in Rough Guides reader poll

    Cambodia ranked number one among the “World’s Friendliest Countries”, according to a reader poll conducted by London-based international website “Rough Guides”. Taking submissions through Twitter and Facebook, “Rough Guides”, a well-known travel agency and publisher of guidebooks, said the Kingdom “was by far the

  • S’ville set to turn into ‘second Shenzhen’

    The Ministry of Economy and Finance has awarded a master plan consultancy contract to top Chinese institute for the development and transformation of Preah Sihanouk province into a “Model Multi-Purpose Special Economic Zone”, Southeast Asia’s next logistics and resort hub and innovation centre. The