Debate Rages About Need for Military Draft

Depending on whom you ask, a draft law that would require all Cambodian males between the age of 18 and 30 to serve in the military for 18 months is des­cribed either as a move to bolster defense capabilities, a campaign to encourage volunteers or a ploy to intimidate and fleece the population.

Many outside the military and the Ministry of Defense—and some within—were puzzled by the Council of Ministers’ adoption of the draft last week, at a time when the nation struggles to trim down its notoriously bloated and elderly armed forces.

Cambodia’s demobilization efforts ground to a halt last year when the World Bank withdrew $6.3 million from a $18.4 million project and suspended operations following the misprocurement of motorcycles intended for the troops’ compensation packages.

Gillian Brown, task team leader of the World Bank project, said that the misprocurement issues have not been resolved.

“The second phase of the demobilization project has not yet been implemented, and the credit for it is due to expire in Decem­ber. We have not heard from the government whether it wants to continue with it,” she wrote in an e-mail on Monday.

In all, Cambodia is believed to have about 112,000 military personnel who receive, on average, less than $20 and a ration of rice every month.

Members of the armed forces complained of salary cuts as re­cently as September and some officials question the wisdom of actively drafting new soldiers when the government has difficulty supporting the current number.

Lieutenant General Mean Sa­rin, deputy commander of the RCAF Infantry, said he supported a mandatory service law but that it was coming too early.

“The demobilization is not yet finished and we should first promote the living conditions of the current soldiers. Military obligation is very important, but I don’t think that now is the right time because the government is poor,” he said.

Unofficial estimates based on the 1998 Cambodian census indicate that the country has about 1.5 million males between the ages of 18 and 30. Each year, more young men turn 18 than the total number of troops currently employed by the armed forces.

Even taking into account that some of those men will be de­clared unfit for service, and assuming that the country continues to pursue demobilization, if the draft law is fully implemented, Cambodia’s military would balloon in size.

But General Ke Kim Yan, RCAF commander in chief , said Thursday the military would probably not start recruiting for another five years, and then only if the draft law is passed by the National Assembly.

He also said that despite the gist of the draft, people would not be forced to serve. Instead the law would serve to motivate educated young people to volunteer for military service.

If that is the case, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay asked, why is the law under consideration in the first place?

“There are probably 1 million young people without work in Cambodia,” he said. “Why [does­n’t the military] go around the villages and find volunteers who want to be paid?”

This is not the first time in re­cent years that a conscription law has come up for debate. In fact the law has been high on the Min­istry of Defense’s list of re­forms for about a decade.

In 1994, the Council of Min­isters approved a draft law very similar to the one approved last week. It was scheduled to reach the National Assembly for debate in early 1996 until King Norodom Sihanouk publicly criticized the plan.

“Selective compulsory military service” next popped into public view when the Ministry of De­fense published its first White Paper, Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia in 2000, which detailed the future direction of national security.

While the reforms set forth in the White Paper are largely de­pendent upon a reduction of military expenditures through demobilization, mandatory service is mentioned as an option to maintain “manpower within authorized ceilings.”

Major General Bun Seng, commander of Military Region 5, said this week that the mandatory service law was coming just in time, citing a severe lack of educated personnel who are skilled in current technology.

He dismissed suggestions that the law should wait until demobilization was under way.

“We can do the two together,” he said.

Co-Minister of Defense Nhiek Bun Chhay echoed Bun Seng’s sentiments, adding that he hoped to strengthen the youth of Cam­bodia in a mandatory service program similar to Israel’s.

“It doesn’t matter about the current soldiers because we will demobilize a large number first, and then we will recruit less,” he said. “Right now we only have many commanders, but the rank and file soldiers are few.”

Others are against the law altogether.

Son Chhay described mandatory service as a way to intimidate the population and to coerce money from families wealthy enough to buy their children’s exemption.

In the 1980s, young people were called upon to fight the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border, but recruitment was largely limited to poor families who could not avoid or bribe their way out of military service, he said.

“We are very much in doubt about the intentions of the government,” he said. “There is no article [in the draft law] specifying how people will be recruited. So you could use that loophole to bring in young people you don’t like and use it as part of political intimidation.”

Ke Kim Yan conceded that Cambodia’s military was tainted by politics, but he argued that mandatory service would only help its depoliticization.

“The old soldiers are partisan and involved in politics, so that is also why we need the law,” he said. “When new soldiers come, it is a new beginning, without politics.”



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