OFFICIALS have dismissed criticisms of the government’s proposed hike in defence and security spending, saying that the funds will strengthen Cambodia’s capabilities and improve conditions in the military.
A draft budget approved by the Council of Ministers last week shows military spending increasing by 24.2 percent – from US$223 million this year to $277 million in 2010.
The draft has come under fire from critics who argue that military spending, which accounts for 14 percent of the US$1.97 billion proposed budget, dwarfs the amount spent on agriculture, rural development and water resources, which account for 5 percent.
Speaking to local media on Wednesday, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith dismissed concerns about the spending gap.
“Do they wish Cambodia’s soldiers to fight with Thailand using slingshots?” he said.
“When our soldiers wore flip-flops and used old guns, they said that the government did not pay attention, but when we turn to support the soldiers, they say these things.”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said activists had the right to criticise the budget, but that they were ignorant of “the real situation” in the military.
“Based on the Constitution, the government has an obligation to defend its territorial integrity,” he said.
Phay Siphan said the money would also focus on creating a “social safety net” for military personnel and providing pensions for retired soldiers.
Critics agreed that action was needed in order to reform the military, but said the government should address the root problems rather than simply bumping up its budget.
“It’s good if the government has an intention of cleaning up the military, but this doesn’t have anything to do with [increasing] the budget,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
Despite being intended as a social safety net, he said, the extra money would more likely be used to shore up the patronage networks of powerful military officers.
“The government keeps granting benefits to the military in order to secure loyalty,” he said.
“The higher levels are trying to please the lower levels so that they get support.”
Ou Virak also noted the phenomenon of “ghost soldiers” – nonexistent enlistees that funnel salaries and other benefits into the pockets of their superiors – as a target for reform.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said a defence force was important for every country, but agreed the lack of oversight made military expenditures a concern.
“I am concerned about the expenditures of the military and how it will manage [them]. In a country like Cambodia, we should have a mechanism to check the expenditures of each institution,” he said.
He added that the government currently possesses the necessary auditing authorities, but that they had not yet been put to full use.
“If they use [these institutions] well, it could make the country more transparent.”