The long awaited and much hyped demobilization program began last month,
bringing with it great hopes for a slimmed down military, fewer guns floating
around the country and the beginnings of a peace dividend. Unfortunately, those
hopes will be dashed, and most of the $42 million donors are providing for the
program will be wasted. Most disturbing, the program's chief donor, the World
Bank, knows that the program is based on false assumptions. Other donors are
either complicit or negligent in failing to do the research and simple math that
would have told them that the figures don't add up.
Newly demobilized soldiers leave a ceremony in Kampong Chhnang October 18 carrying goods, cash and children.
which has been an official goal of the Cambodian government and on the aid
agenda of donors since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 - has
three primary purposes.
The first is to help the Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces (RCAF) become a modern and professional force with a size commensurate to
Cambodia's population and its genuine security needs and unburdened by the
retention of tens of thousands of unneeded soldiers.
Second, it is hoped
that reducing the number of persons entitled to wear a uniform (which creates
fear and confers authority) and carry a weapon in Cambodia's villages and cities
will reduce the number of human rights abuses committed by RCAF - the single
biggest violator of human rights in Cambodia. In other words, now that the war
with the Khmer Rouge has ended, it is hoped that that RCAF will end the war on
its own citizens and put a stop to practices such as extra-judicial executions,
extortion, illegal logging and land grabs.
Third, donors hope to use
demobilization as a starting point to radically reorient fiscal policy from the
security sector to the social sector. After a generation of war and a continuous
war economy, it is time to spend less on the army and more on health, education
and welfare (this is the reason the World Bank is involved).
laudable goals. None will be met.
Start with the number of soldiers. The
entire demobilization program is based on figures supplied to the donors -
chiefly the World Bank and Japan - by the Cambodian government. According to the
government, as of December 1999 there were 140,693 members of the Royal
Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). Subsequently, approximately 8,000 widows and
children were moved from the military's payroll to that of the Ministry of
Women's and Veteran's Affairs, while 1,500 more were demobilized through a pilot
project last year, leaving approximately 130,500 "soldiers" in RCAF. The current
demobilization program will bring that number down to 100,000.
Co-Defense Minister Tea Banh honours retiring Cmdr Cham Samnang Oct 18.
most of the 130,500 remaining "soldiers" do not exist. More than two dozen
interviews with senior officers of the RCAF, representing all political
factions, make this clear. Most laughed when presented with the official number.
Only one officer interviewed claims that the official numbers are real. Among
the rest none gave a figure over 75,000, and a few put the figure as low as
20,000 actual soldiers in the RCAF. The average figure given was approximately
40,000. Not one of those interviewed said he had been asked by the program's
chief sponsors, the World Bank and Japan, about the actual size of the RCAF
(some said they would have told them; most, fearing repercussions, said they
would have referred the question to the Chief of Staff or the Council of
Co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath and the then
Australian military attaché Dougall McMillan told London's King's College
Journal of "Conflict, Security & Development" in October 2000 that there
were between 20,000-30,000 soldiers in RCAF. A former French military advisor
suggested "anywhere from 30,000-60,000 depending on how you count." A former
American attaché puts the figure at "a maximum of 40,000."
interested in the official view of the United States government only has to go
to the State Department website at
www.state.gov/www/global/arms/bureau_vc/wmeat98vc to find that as of the end of
1997 the State Department "Bureau of Verification and Compliance" put the figure
at 60,000. One State Department official says "this figure was put at the top
end of the possible range to avoid embarrassing the Cambodian government."
The only significant source of increased numbers for the RCAF since that
time is Khmer Rouge defectors. But no one has suggested that the Khmer Rouge
brought 70,000 soldiers with them when they were defeated (if they had that many
Khieu Samphan would probably now be Prime Minister and Ta Mok Chief of Staff),
which is the difference between the figure of the State Department in 1997 and
that of the RCAF in 2001. The actual number of Khmer Rouge soldiers who have
joined the RCAF is obscured by corruption in the defection process, but most
estimates had put the fighting force of the Khmer Rouge at between 5,000
and10,000 before it collapsed. Some estimates were even lower.
after spending $42 million of scarce aid money - enough to dig 42,000 wells to
provide clean water to Cambodian villages or to build 2,100 "Hun Sen" schools,
far more than the entire budget for health in Cambodia - the end result of the
demobilization program will be to "reduce" the size of Cambodia's army to an
official figure that is probably two and a half times greater than the number
now actually serving as soldiers. In fact, RCAF could actually go out and
recruit tens of thousands of new soldiers to fill the empty uniforms of its
ghosts and still not exceed the official figure accepted by donors.
who are these non-existent soldiers and why does the government keep them on the
rolls? Some are retirees. In anticipation of the demobilization program in 1997
the government stopped retiring soldiers so that donors would bear the cost of
pensioning them off. The AFP story of October 18 announcing the beginning of
demobilization speaks volumes about the seriousness of this program: "'I am very
happy that I can now lead a life of an ordinary man with my family,' said
71-year-old Pen Kim Sath who said he had spent 26 years of his life serving the
army. Bou Rem, 65, a father of five, said he did not resent being shedded from
the military ranks. "The war is now over and I am also old, so I prefer to do
something which is more appropriate for me,' Bou Rem said.
Others being "demobilized" are disabled and have not worked as soldiers
Most of the rest are "ghosts," whose salaries are collected -
in a practice dating to the Lon Nol era - by their commanders and shared upwards
with their superiors.
No RCAF officer interviewed denied that there are
large numbers of non-existent soldiers in RCAF. Many point to the immediate
post-UNTAC era as the genesis of the current ghost problem, when the CPP and
FUNCINPEC went on a largely fake recruiting frenzy to bolster their side's
numbers in anticipation of formal integration of their forces in RCAF. Diplomats
and the UN watched as this process unfolded and did virtually nothing to stop
it. Now they are literally paying the price to clean up this
Collecting the salaries of ghosts is only part of the incentive for
inflating the numbers. Soldiers are issued with a wide variety of supplies each
year, from rice and shoes to shirts and underwear - and guns. But ghost soldiers
don't eat and don't wear clothes. Senior military and government officials
profit gloriously from this con. Companies close to senior military and
political figures sell these goods to the army at inflated prices. As one of
Cambodia's most powerful businessmen says, "For instance, a shirt costs $8 but
the army pays $21. Shoes cost $2-$3 but they pay $8-$10. By law they are
supposed to bid but they rarely do it."
When ghosts are involved,
sometimes these goods are actually delivered, after which they are sold in
private markets by the senior officers who receive them. Other times they are
not delivered at all and sold for a second time by the suppliers to private
The World Bank's Representative, Bonaventure Mbida-Essama,
argues that there were no ghosts in the pilot program and there will be no
ghosts in the full demobilization program - basing his conviction on the fact
that somebody shows up to demobilization ceremonies while ignoring all the
possibilities for creating false identities.
But whether demobilization
is real or fake hardly matters to the creator of the ghosts. They profit in
either case. If a ghost is demobilized, the creator takes the $240 severance pay
offered under the program to each demobilized soldier; if a ghost is not
demobilized the creator can continue to collect the salary the ghost continues
to receive and the clothing he continues not to wear.
may be the reason whyHun Sen boldly told the pre-CG meeting last year that
instead of demobilizing 55,000 soldiers as previously agreed, the demobilization
program would only involve 30,000, leaving RCAF with 100,000 troops. No military
justification for this number was offered, because there is none. Most military
analysts believe that Cambodia needs an army of no more than 40,000. Some
suggest that a professional force of 20,000 would be sufficient given the lack
of external threats.
One diplomat at the pre-CG meeting said: "This did
not sit well with the donors and on the spot the Japanese ambassador asked a few
nasty questions. Hun Sen did not appreciate this and said that the government's
view was that the donors should first come up with the money to demobilize the
30,000 he was proposing. But this was a completely arbitrary number.
Nevertheless, that was how it was left.
In the end the Japanese
ambassador's reaction was not the considered decision of his government, as
Japan has agreed to give $10 million to the program.
It is not clear if
the Bank, which is loaning $18 million (take note, campaigners for debt relief -
we will be protesting Cambodia's debt one day), Japan or other donors were aware
that in 1993 FUNCINPEC and CPP military commanders had agreed as a first step to
cut the then inflated RCAF of 130,000 to 65,000, a decision reiterated in 1996
but never implemented because of corruption and distrust between the parties. No
one has been able to explain why this figure was not used as a baseline for this
Just as alarming as false numbers and wasted money is a lack of
focus on demilitarization and disarmament of Cambodian society.
the demise of the Khmer Rouge and the simmering of the rivalry between the
armies of the CPP and FUNCINPEC within RCAF, there has never been a better
opportunity to address the violence that permeates Cambodian society. Nothing
poses a greater threat to the development of Cambodia in the short or long term
than the lawlessness that pervades most of the country. That lawlessness is
delivered at the barrel of a gun, and by members of the Cambodian armed forces.
NGO and UN reports are rife with examples of rural terror, land grabs,
extra-judicial executions, extortion and other illegal activities by the army.
Police are afraid to arrest and courts are afraid to prosecute and convict even
low-ranking soldiers for fear of violent repercussions.
has been tolerated by the Cambodian government and senior military officials in
the name of force cohesion against the greater enemy of the Khmer Rouge. That
justification no longer exists. For the international community to miss this
opportunity to address the most basic of human rights and rule of law issues
will be unforgivable.
Yet this will almost surely be a missed
Neither the government nor donors have taken the
disarmament issue seriously.
In the government's official project
description of over 40 pages only two paragraphs are devoted to disarmament,
saying that "the army will collect all weapons, register them and store and/or
destroy those weapons".
There is no real plan and certainly no reason to
take this pledge seriously, given the many false starts in recent years in
addressing this issue. While demobilization is to take place in public in
"discharge centers", disarmament is to take place in private inside RCAF bases.
There is no guarantee that soldiers will be disarmed or that weapons stockpiles
will be managed securely or destroyed.
Observers have noted that in
public weapons destruction ceremonies many if not most of the weapons have been
old and almost useless. Given the corruption in RCAF there is no reason to think
these weapons, even if collected, will not be sold or given back to the same
soldier, who though demobilized may remain part of the same armed network, only
on an unofficial basis.
Demobilization should be an opportunity to weed
out some of the worst elements of the army. It is no secret who these people
are. Senior RCAF officials know what their subordinates are doing; many, if not
most, are profiting from it. The UN and NGOs have copious records on the worst
offenders. Western military attaches also know who these people are.
exchange for the $42 million, donors should have put great pressure on the
government for them to be demobilized. At the very least, pressure could have
been brought to rotate commanders with bad human rights records to different
parts of the country to disrupt the criminal networks that they control. Only in
this way can there be any hope that demobilized soldiers will actually be
demobilized, that their weapons will be handed in on a permanent basis, and that
if they engage in criminal activity as civilians they will be subject to the
rule of law. But donors are afraid to even raise these issues with Hun Sen and
It is also crucial to require demobilized soldiers to hand in
their uniforms, as fatigues carry a badge of extra-legality in Cambodia and give
the wearer a well founded sense of impunity. "Try to arrest me if I don't pay my
bill at a restaurant, or I steal your land, and you'll see what will happen" is
often the attitude of men in uniform in Cambodia. The wise comply, and the cycle
of lawlessness continues.
Instead of providing a set of civilian clothes
in exchange for a uniform, and making it an offense for a civilian to wear an
RCAF uniform, this issue has been ignored as donors have blithely accepted the
government's argument that demobilized soldiers need their uniforms to work
If demobilization will fail to reduce the size of the army
or address basic human rights and rule of law issues, what about the third
purpose of the program, reducing expenditures on the army and redirecting
government resources to the social sector? For the answer to this look no
further than Ke Kim Yan, Commander in Chief of RCAF, who has made it clear that
he has no intention of decreasing the military budget.
While many would
argue that the last thing Cambodia should be spending money on now is the army,
so long as the basic premise of a traditional standing army is not challenged,
sound arguments can be advanced for his position - chiefly that if the army is
to professionalize it has to pay a living wage so that soldiers do not feel
obliged to moonlight or engage in criminal activities to survive. Even if force
size is cut in half, the bill for wages would remain the same or even increase
as the monthly salary is increased to say $50 per month from its current level
of $15-20. Of course, if the army were trimmed to the size necessary for
national defense - 20,000-40,000 - then cost savings could be achieved. But
cutting less than 25 percent of personnel, as planned in the demobilization
program, will not free up the resources necessary to create a peace dividend.
Added to all this is the military's large appetite for expensive new
hardware, which has only been whetted by the White Paper on defense co-authored
by Australia. When generals travel to Western and even neighboring countries,
such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, they get acute cases of tank, plane
and helicopter envy. Unless the army is disbanded, an idea which has not been
sufficiently explored, there is little doubt that significant resources will be
dedicated to the accoutrements of a modern, professional force as seen by their
foreign advisors. Goodbye peace dividend.
The government's history of
sleight of hand on budgetary matters should have made donors skeptical of this
last goal. Year after year the government has pledged to reduce military
spending and increase social sector spending, and even has the National Assembly
rubber stamp budgets that tend in that direction, but year after year they
overspend on the military and underspend on health, education and welfare. Add
to this the huge amount of illicit funds raised by the military through illegal
logging, smuggling and other businesses and the disparity between the military
and social spending is even greater than official figures indicate. And the
military benefit in other ways from an informal fiscal policy. One senior
general bragged to me how he had asked a senior government official for a tax
exemption on his farm so that he could pay the soldiers under his command a
higher salary. As a "favor", the official duly complied. With the budget in
Cambodia what you see is not what you get. Caveat emptor.
How did the
World Bank end up financing such a sham? In May 1999 at a donor's meeting
attended by government officials it painted itself into a corner when a member
of its post-conflict unit suggested without authorization that demobilized
soldiers would be paid $1,200 each. Word of this bounty spread like wildfire.
RCAF officers went on a recruiting binge, paying Cambodians to put their names
down on official registers as soldiers so that they could collect the $1,200. It
took almost two years for the World Bank and other donors to disentangle
themselves from this expectation. In doing so, donors became more compliant
about substantive issues, allowing the government to negotiate the lowest common
As a result, the Bank had no interest in
challenging the patently false numbers provided by the government. Bonaventure
Mdiba-Essama, a man clearly uncomfortable in defending this program, told me in
March when I presented him with the results of my investigation,"I am familiar
with these numbers. But it is neither my job nor my specialty to gather this
evidence. You can do background checks but that is not my job. I rely on
official sources and the military attaches of various embassies for my
It is not clear how other donors verified the numbers; the impression is of a
house of mirrors, with everyone pointing at the person across the table.
More important for the Bank than genuine demobilization was the appearance of
a demobilization program in Cambodia. The World Bank operations in Cambodia
piggy-backed on the "Enhanced Structural Reform Facility" (ESAF) provided by its
sister agency, the IMF (essentially cash to the National Bank of Cambodia). Part
of the ESAF agreement with the government was a demobilization program that
would shift fiscal policy from security to social programs. The IMF told the
Bank that since its program in Cambodia was conditional - meaning if the
government failed to meet all its conditions the IMF had to withdraw - the Bank
(as a programmatic agency) must succeed. The IMF had withdrawn once from
Cambodia in 1997 over illegal logging (in large part, ironically, carried out by
the military) and they did not want to do this again, since they had returned
without obtaining the stringent reforms of the forestry sector they had
originally demanded. To fail on demobilization would mean that they had failed
in Cambodia again. This would have made the IMF look toothless and would cause
them problems in other parts of the world. Demobilization has to happen, the
The fallback argument of some donors now is that
even though the numbers may not be real and actual demobilization may not occur,
at least a lot of very poor people will be assisted in some of rural Cambodia's
poorest areas. Who can argue against that? For starters, any professional in the
development field. The EU threw cash around in the mid-1990s through its $44
million "Prasac" program and was roundly criticized by the NGO Forum (its 1996
"Study on Differing Approaches to Development Assistance in Cambodia" should be
required reading for all donors) chiefly because there was no effective strategy
for its largesse. It then changed its approach and accepted the fact that a
dollar given in a well planned, targeted manner can go a long way and play a
part in long-term development, while a dollar given away carelessly will be
consumed - probably by an unintended beneficiary - and then lost to the
There are many valuable ways to spend $42 million in
Cambodia. Suggesting that it doesn't really matter if it reaches its intended
beneficiaries because there are so many poor people in Cambodia is negligent at
best, cynical at worst. Why not just drop the money from a helicopter over poor
villages and save all the high paid consultants' salaries?
It is simply
ludicrous to consider 71-year-old men and the disabled as "soldiers" to be
demobilized. Each non-soldier who is demobilized represents a missed
opportunity to remove a real soldier from RCAF's bloated ranks, with all the
costs to law and order and the country's economic future this entails. While
social welfare programs for the old and disabled are necessary in Cambodia,
demobilization is not the appropriate program to address this need. If the
World Bank is serious about helping these people - and it and the IMF are
notorious for throwing poor pensioners off the rolls around the world - it
should help fund a genuine, well-planned state pension and disability system.
Another of the Bank's failings has been its attempt to deal with an
inherently political issue on a technical basis. Issues like demobilization are
difficult, dirty and demoralizing, and success is far from predictable. As one
Bank employee told me at their Washington, DC headquarters, "The Bank is hardly
going to risk its entire program in Cambodia on this one subject, even if it is
the most important subject it is likely to deal with while in the country. It
cuts against the nature of this place. For most of our staff their chief goal is
to get countries to take out new loans. They are bankers and economists.
Demobilization is just another loan to them."
The Bank's inability to
successfully grapple with demobilization in Cambodia calls into question its
stated desire to recast itself as a global leader in governance issues. Perhaps
the Bank should stick to what it does best, whatever that may be. For as Mr
Mbida-Essama - clearly a well-intentioned, self-critical man, and perhaps
occasionally honest to a fault - also told me, "It is not given that development
assistance leads to development. That is not proven." The demobilization program
proves that point. Unfortunately, long after the donors have packed their bags,
the losers will be the Cambodian people.
Once again, through bluster and
hardball negotiating tactics, Hun Sen has for his own economic and political
interests run circles around a divided and confused donor community that appears
to lack vision or courage. What started out as a good and well-intentioned idea
- just as with the Khmer Rouge tribunal - has become an unrecognizable shadow of
the original. In other words, a ghost.
- Brad Adams, a human rights
lawyer in Cambodia from 1993-98, is writing a book on Cambodia.