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Why does Cambodia need conscription?

Why does Cambodia need conscription?

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

various disasters."

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.

Today's RCAF

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

forest estate.

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?

Past demobilization

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.

Affordable force

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.


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