After decades of civil war, Cambodia’s first taste of peace should be what every Cambodian soldier has wished for.
However, the government’s pilot plan to demobilize soldiers, announced last Friday, has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some soldiers in Phnom Penh who say the compensation package of $240 in cash and $397 in supplies would not be enough for the years they spent defending Cambodia.
“I feel horrified by the government [plan]. When they needed to, they used me easily,” a 35-year-old RCAF captain who would only identify himself as Sokha said this week. “When they do not need me they throw me away. They do what they want. They do not care.”
The compensation package, part of a pilot plan to cut 1,500 soldiers in Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Thom, Kampot and Battambang provinces, was unveiled Feb 4 by Cabinet Minister Sok An. If the plan proves successful, the scheme likely will be broadened to include thousands more men who are slated to soon put down their arms.
Trimming the armed forces is one of the most daunting challenges facing the government, which is under pressure from donors to increase its efficiency and reduce costs.
The new package differs greatly from a previous proposed plan to give $1,200 in cash to each soldier. But that plan prompted a nearly year-old impasse with donors, which are expected eventually to foot much of the demobilization bill. Among other things, some donors felt the money could wind up in corrupt officials’ pockets.
Overall, the government plans to reduce the military by nearly one-third. Official government estimates put the number of troops at 140,693, but independent military analysts, and some RCAF generals themselves, have said the nation’s fighting force is actually well less than 100,000.
The government plans calls for an army of less than 100,000 within three years, through retirement and by striking 15,000 “ghost soldiers” off the payroll, Sok An said.
A total budget of $2.4 million is earmarked for the pilot plan which will begin in May, Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-minister of defense, said Thursday. He said the government will pay the 1,500 RCAF soldiers in the pilot plan $240 in cash plus an additional $397 for clothing, rice and equipment for farming and fishing.
It’s too early to say that the compensation package used in the pilot plan will be used to demobilize soldiers across the country.
However, RCAF soldiers in Phnom Penh, where the cost of living is higher than in the countryside, complained this week that the compensation is not enough for the years of service they gave during Cambodia’s war-filled years.
“If I am demobilized I will need more money,” said RCAF soldier Kim Heng. “[The $240] is not enough for me to feed my children. What I say is not only for myself but for all the armed forces [personnel].”
Kim Heng said the government plan says to him that his loyalty to his country during years of war is worth nothing in peace time.
“I have been a soldier since…the State of Cambodia and I have made sacrifices for [my] people in the battlefield. I don’t want to hear that when the country has war it needs soldiers but when it has peace it needs the educated. It is unfair,” said Kim Heng. He said he did not want to be demobilized from the army, which is the only job he has known since the late 1980s.
Sokha, who currently makes a higher salary as an officer, said he does not know how ordinary soldiers will manage with the paltry pay off.
According to Sokha, the government is setting a bad example for society by teaching that there is no need to take responsibility for the soldiers who protected the country for almost two decades.
“They pushed the army to battle which left many of them disabled. And now they want to give this compensation. I don’t know what the government is doing. I am already fed up with my salary and now they do [this]…,” he said.
Meas Sophea, RCAF infantry commander and vice-chairman of the demobilization committee, said Monday the demobilization committee will wait for the military’s reaction to the compensation offer but added it is unlikely the government can give more without financial assistance from donor countries.
Donor countries are expected to provide the resettlement money, but if they refuse, the government will pay this also, Meas Sophea said.
“We also pushed to give more money to [demobilized soldiers], but we are waiting for a response from the donor countries,” said Meas Sophea, adding the $240 in cash was a good offer considering the state of the country’s finances.
The original $1,200 figure was recommended by the World Bank last February, but rejected by donor countries as too high, a military analyst said Thursday. It was then used as a benchmark for nearly a year of negotiations.
According to the military analyst, the pilot plan still will mean an investment of more than $1,300 per soldier when all costs are taken into account.
Military displeasure with the compensation stems from the fact the issue is really one of downsizing rather than demobilizing as the country has not been in a state of war since the early 1990s, said a Western diplomat familiar with the military.
He said that in many areas there are enough soldiers who want to retire voluntarily. “But the soldiers get more radical the nearer you get to Phnom Penh,” said the diplomat, noting spin off benefits for the some military in terms of “ghost soldier” payments and security work will be lost when they lose their positions.
“You can’t tell them to go and be farmers,” he said.
Prince Sirirath said the criticism in Phnom Penh is not unexpected.
The initial figure of $1,200 was an unrealistic amount that should not have been leaked to the public as it raised too many expectations, he said.
“They have the right to say what [the compensation] should be…. but we had to cut it down…,” Prince Sirirath said.
Staff Sergeant Major Ki Kim Chan, 33, also said the Cambodian military is thought of a disposable commodity now that the country has peace.
Comparing the military to a fence around a house, Ki Kim Chan warned that when the fence is gone the house is left vulnerable.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle)