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
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
Samantha Ford - Legal Intern, Center for Social Development