ksam village, Kompong Chhnang province – When Tum Sophas turned 16, his mother and father had little money to support him and his five younger siblings. It was 1992, the year after the Paris Peace Accords—but that peace was being tested by the resurgent Khmer Rouge.
“It was very hard to find a job, and I was very poor. So I joined the army,” he said.
Several years later, he found himself in Kompong Thom province, carrying a gun against Khmer Rouge rebels. When asked what he recalled of the fighting, Tum Sophas smiled.
“I was very scared,” he said.
Battlefields are just a memory for Tum Sophas now, just as years of Cambodian civil war are now over. On Thursday, he was discharged from the military he has grown to love.
Now that Cambodia has peace and stability, the government can begin spending more on social services and less on the military, Prime Minister Hun Sen said near Kompong Chhnang town Thursday at a ceremony marking the beginning of a mass demobilization program. Fifteen thousand soldiers will be demobilized by December, while another 15,000 are scheduled to be demobilized in 2002.
Tum Sophas, who served as a guard at the Chroy Changva Naval Base in recent years, was one of 400 soldiers discharged in the first group demobilized. Like the other troops, he received about $240 in cash, 150 kg of rice, a mat, buckets, tools, cooking oil, salt and canned fish.
“They dismissed me. They stopped me from working, even though I wanted to continue,” he said.
Before Thursday’s ceremony —attended by top government and military officials, diplomats and officials from NGOs and the World Bank’s Cambodia office—the soldiers spent several days learning about the government’s veteran assistance program and about weapons reduction, human rights, democracy and health care.
After the ceremony, Tum Sophas waited along Route 5 with other demobilized soldiers who were to be transported to destinations within Kompong Chhnang province. Massive trucks carrying demobilized soldiers to Battambang and Oddar Meanchey provinces and to Phnom Penh began their long journeys first.
After an hour’s wait, Tum Sophas loaded his bags of rice and equipment into a truck. Just a few kilometers down the road, he was dropped in the center of Kompong Chhnang town. A short motorcycle taxi ride later, he received a warm welcome from his partially flooded home village.
“I am very excited to see him. We haven’t met for a long time,” said Nay Sophy, a 25-year-old motorcycle taxi driver who attended primary school with Tum Sophas.
When his friend first decided to join the military, Nay Sophy tried to persuade Tum Sophas to stay in school. But when he saw the military paid about $17.50 every month, Nay Sophy changed his mind. And he recognized his friend was “volunteering to protect his country.”
Waiting for a boat to take him several hundred meters to his home, Tum Sophas told 20 villagers that he was happy to see his home and his family.
“And your girlfriend,” added a friend.
Tum Sophas wants to learn how to be a mechanic now.
“I want to work. I want to have a skill,” he said.
Officials have promised to send him to a workshop to learn to fix engines, he said. But if training falls through and money runs out, he will probably work as a motorcycle taxi driver, he said.
Like many demobilized soldiers interviewed Thursday, Tum Sophas chose to receive a motorcycle from the demobilization program. The other two choices were a house and a water pump with a power generator.
He said he will also buy a sewing machine for his three younger sisters.
“They don’t know how to sew yet, but they will learn,” he said.