I read with great concern the Phnom Penh Post article of May 10, which reported senior
RCAF General Pol Saroeun telling a Defense White Paper Seminar "that the early
establishment of a law implementing compulsory service was essential".
It brought back memories of the numerous and credible reports of the many young men
who were illegally conscripted from remote villages and communes (unless they could
pay) and sent untrained to fight the Khmer Rouge in the many dry season offensives
of the 90's.
The reason for that 'conscription' was that many commanding generals were forced
to turn paper 'ghosts' into real soldiers when ordered by the General Staff to send
their division or unit, based on its 'reported strength', to fight in those seasonal
Why is compulsory service considered essential now when for the first time there
is a sustained period of peace?
Defense White Paper
Searching for the reasons for what may seem to many an absurd recommendation,
given a three phase plan to demobilize an advertised 55,000 soldiers over three years,
a sustained period of peace and an intent to reduce government spending on defense,
I went to the White Paper, Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia 2000.
I applaud the document for its content and the efforts of those who contributed to
its development. I believe it constitutes an excellent springboard on which real
plans and real reform may flow.
To me, Prime Minister Hun Sen's opening message said exactly what I wanted to hear:
"The reform of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces must be enhanced so that it
can be a well organized armed force with appropriate size, decent wages and allowances,
and sufficient ability to perform its defense duties by contributing to national
construction and development, and provision of assistance to people suffering from
Would it not be possible to recruit rather than conscript young men and women to
such an armed force?
However, inside the White Paper we read that, "because of the need to maintain
the RCAF's manpower within authorized ceilings (not defined), selective military
service might be needed under certain circumstances so that the RCAF's defense capability
can be sustained. Without this option, the RCAF's human resources could fall short
of requirement with only commanders and ageing officers with no fit, strong and young
soldiers to perform their roles and responsibilities."
The term "selective military service" immediately rings alarm bells especially
in relation to those 'selected' in the unofficial 'conscription' of the 90's. As
an aside, in relation to "ageing officers" I suggest that a recently promoted
28-year-old general with his unit of 50 or so bodyguards, should still be fit to
fight for some years yet.
The White Paper goes on to say: "The implementation of selective compulsory
military service will, apart from maintaining the military force, result in a number
of positive impacts such as the promotion of knowledge, a spirit of awareness and
nationalism among Cambodia's youth, and will also heighten discipline, ethics and
national values of society."
Given the reality of the 'soldier's lot' in today's RCAF, I find it hard to see how
these positive impacts will be inculcated in many of those selected for conscription.
A soldier is paid about $20 a month and is provided with a 20 plus kilogram rice
allowance. He, either single or married, cannot live on that amount and is variously
forced to supplement his salary with a second job, to run a business, be sub-contracted
out by his commander, to live on the land (or return home to his family who lives
on the land), or live off the land.
One province in which I work has more than 1,000 so-called sub-zone soldiers (the
country is divided into five military regions or zones and the provinces become sub-zones).
Apart from border defense, which for underpaid soldiers and officers comes with its
own temptations, there is little real soldiering for many of that 1,000 plus to do.
Yes they do have a sort of policing and general protection function but with little
training, poor equipment and no transport, any protection they provide is very localized.
So what do they and just as importantly their families do, to live? Soldiers are
used to guard forestry concessions and are paid by the concessionaire - many claim
not to be paid by the army. Soldiers are allowed to have second jobs, such as being
involved in the illegal cutting of yellow vine and the manufacture of yellow vine
powder. Some are contracted to illegally clear the forest estate. Some live off the
Pressures of command
With the arrival of conservationists, the local province military commander now
sees himself as being 'between a rock and a hard place'. Yes he does have business
interests, as many senior officers do, and he does sub-contract as many of his soldiers
as possible as concession guards etc, but I believe he has a genuine interest in
the welfare of all of his soldiers and their families. His problem, unless he can
locate them where they can be largely self-sustaining, is how can he support the
many who can't be sub-contracted, with the limited resources he receives? In many
cases, he tries to solve this through adroit placement of his units. Albeit based
on some pretext of security and protection, he establishes them in the most likely
self-sustaining locations; astride roads and in the forest estate.
The land is cleared illegally for the unit site. Timber to house the unit and its
families is cut illegally. Other land is cleared for subsistence farming, or subsequently
for sale. Wood is cut to feed a charcoal kiln, wildlife is hunted, and so on. The
unit with its meager salary and rice allowance becomes self-sufficient. Then the
conservationist arrives and rightly says, "This is all illegal activity and
must cease immediately".
Living off the country's natural resources was and continues to be a prime source
of income for commanders who need to maintain their positions as powerful patrons
and for soldiers who need to feed themselves and their families. Surely if we fixed
one side of that equation, by paying decent wages and allowances to soldiers, then
the current wide-ranging efforts by international defense donors, to create a professional
officer corps, might have some chance of success.
Even though he may be using the army for business purposes, the local commander in
the province I have just described does care about his men and he is training them.
But only some of the training is military; there are no practice range shoots, after
all there is no ammunition for such activities. His training focus is to teach soldiers
farming and the raising of farm animals and to try to get other local businessmen
to support his training efforts.
Even the White Paper, in the small section devoted to "Conditions of Service",
states, "The salary of soldiers will be paid regularly and, if possible, increased.
With national stability, self-reliant living conditions based mainly on agricultural
crops might be made, perhaps by allowing soldiers to cooperate with investment units
in the agro-industrial field."
In that statement are we really describing how serving soldiers are meant to be employed,
or a demobilization plan where soldiers become farmers and work in agro-industries?
Such a demobilization plan was the basis, in 1994, of the General Staff being
allocated, for 'demobilization/development' use, about 6 percent of all concession
land across the five military regions. The events of '97 intervened, but the plan
was that demobilized soldiers would receive some form of leasehold title to a subsistence
farming plot for their 'demobilization' and adjacent 'development' land would be
used to attract agro industries that would provide viable employment for those who
had been demobilized.
A pilot program was started on Route 4 near Pich Nil. That land is still in the hands
of the generals and in all fairness you would probably find numbers of still-serving
soldiers farming some of it. Of course there is ample of this military concession
land to support any plans, if they exist, to provide land for demobilized soldiers.
Given the real picture 'out there' and going back to the White Paper's opening
statement, rather than selective conscription, would it not be better, at a time
when Cambodia has no clearly identified threats, to recruit soldiers based on the
number of physically fit, properly trained, properly equipped and supported personnel
that the defense budget can afford.
My understanding is that the RCAF current strength is now about 100,000, after removing
upwards of 25,000 paper ghosts, demobilizing 1,500 in a pilot program and a further
15,000 in phase one of a two-phased program that may demobilize at least another
20,000. I am unaware of any senior officers, of one star general rank and above,
who have been identified for demobilization.
The budget available for a properly paid and trained full-time professional armed
force will obviously not support a post-demobilization 80,000. However it might well
support an RCAF of about one quarter to one fifth of its once paid strength; down
from 140,000 plus to between 25,000 to 35,000 with a significant reduction in the
number of generals from almost 500 now to something less than 150.
Can a RCAF of 30,000 full-time professionals do the job? Many of us believe so.
"Decent wages and allowances", proper training and full and worthwhile
employment would surely attract more than enough fit young men and women to, as the
Prime Minister puts it "an armed force which is absolutely loyal to the nation,
respects the Constitution, is well disciplined, is polite, is morally clean, respects
and loves the people, is capable of fulfilling the defense of independence, sovereignty,
and territorial integrity, and of maintaining and strengthening peace, stability
and social security order".
The choice is simple, even if planning and implementation are more complex. The government
can either conscript to sustain military business interests that will continue to
degrade the nation's natural resources or it can recruit to the professional armed
force described in the White Paper, where being military is the business and a good
part of that business is to protect the nation and its resources.
Colonel David Mead (Retired) was the Australian Defense Attaché in Cambodia
from 1995- 97. He is now country director of Conservation International and technical
adviser to the Department of Forestry and Wildlife's Cardamom Conservation Program.