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Why conscription would be bad for Cambodia

Why conscription would be bad for Cambodia

The Phnom Penh Post's July 28, 2006 article "Army duty looms for conscripts"

suggests some of the thorny issues surrounding forced military service in any culture,

but for Cambodia's young government and disproportionately youthful population, there

are additional problems to consider.

Cambodia is a small country that should be allocating the majority of its small national

budget to fighting internal demons, rather than arming itself for international conflict.

Yet the government is considering a new Law of Military Service that would expand

the military in size and budget by introducing conscription for Cambodian young men.

Cambodia has a long and complicated military history. Over the past ten years efforts

have focused on demilitarizing society with programs to rid the country of guns and

reintroduce members of the old, bloated army back into civilian society. The draft

law would force most of the young men into a service that promotes values contrary

to the needs of current Cambodia, especially in light of its violent past.

An army formed by conscription often suffers from low morale. Proponents suggest

that military service is a chance for young people to contribute to their country

and build a sense of national identity. This may work in cases where there are clear

projects and roles for young people to fill. Cambodia's draft law does not set out

any specific plan for how these new recruits would be trained or what benefits they

would gain from the time spent in service.

The law provides an education exception for students allowing them to delay their

service for up to three years. This education exception would not benefit impoverished

Cambodians who end their formal education long before their 18th birthdays.

The law also suggests vague benefits in exchange for service: priority in obtaining

government employment, and entrance into technical education programs. But unless

the country experiences astronomical economic growth, there will not be enough positions

or schools open to offer benefits to all the young men affected under this law.

In fact, poorer families face a much greater opportunity cost when their children

are conscripted. They lose a main breadwinner to a military position with a salary

of about $30 per month. There is some indication, as suggested by Sam Rainsy in the

Post article, that this law is intended to mask an unemployment problem among Cambodian

youth. For those who have jobs and are trying to build a career, conscription means

losing 18 months of on-the-job experience and training.

Conscription has a reputation for directly impacting the poor while the wealthy find

ways to avoid serving, and loopholes in the draft law would allow this to happen

in Cambodia.

People with dual citizenship who do not live permanently in Cambodia will not be

conscripted. Most people with dual citizenship are returnees with greater resources.

If they send their children abroad for part of the year they can avoid classification

as permanent citizens. Wealthier citizens can also purchase a place for their children

in military training school, so they can serve as officers rather than soldiers.

Finally, there is evidence that some individuals hold titles and job positions in

which they do not actually work. If this corrupt practice extended into the military,

young men with the means could offer bribes to either stay off conscription lists

or be listed as serving even when they do not.

The government is talking about putting most of its young population into service

where they will have nothing to do and no greater goal to strive for. They have no

budget to pay these salaries, no plans for skills training, and no projects for them

to work on.

They give no explanation of why these new troops would be needed and how the country

would use them. Cambodia needs to harness the energy of its youth to promote growth

in the private sector and develop a strong civil society. It should not fall back

into a pattern of making its citizens dependent on the government and military for

support.

Samantha Ford - Legal Intern, Center for Social Development

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