Prime Minister Hun Sen Wednesday closed an annual meeting of top military officials by demanding an army that is less influenced by Cambodia’s political parties.
This, he told the gathering of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces generals and regional commanders, would reduce the chances of the military fracturing during periods of political instability, much as it did during the July 1997 fighting as soldiers aligned with Funcinpec clashed with CPP-led troops for several days in and around Phnom Penh.
“I want to make sure that from today the government does not allow any political party to order the armed forces. I absolutely will not allow this,” said the prime minister, who maintains his own security force of more than 1,000 full-time soldiers based at his residential compound outside Phnom Penh.
The military has often been criticized for its factionalized nature, and has been blamed for carrying out the agendas of individual government officials rather than acting in the interests of the country.
Even today, large groups of soldiers remain loyal to specific commanders, particularly former Funcinpec troops in Cambodia’s northwest provinces and recently integrated Khmer Rouge fighters. The bond between soldiers and superiors tends to run deep because it is commonplace for commanders, rather than the Defense Ministry’s bureaucracy, to provide for units of combatants.
In his address at the Hotel Intercontinental, the prime minister acknowledged the close ties between commanders and their men still exist, despite the appearances of an increasingly neutral military. But he condemned what he called “underground armies,” saying these forces “will not be used against the government again.”
Several key military officials, including co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath, admitted to having difficulties finding a common ground between once- warring military factions.
Prince Sirirath on Tuesday suggested perhaps a lighter-handed approach to integrating former enemies into the government’s fighting force.
“The most important thing for them to do is socialize—go out and have lunch, have dinner with each other. You can’t stick to your own groups,” Prince Sirirath said following the Tuesday session.
Also key to creating a neutral military is the demobilization process, according to one western diplomatic source.
During the next two years RCAF intends to slash its fighting force significantly. Prince Sirirath said the army’s current 19 divisions—officially, some 140,000 troops—may be reduced to only three divisions.
“But you have to select a process of demobilization that is fair and impartial,” the diplomat said. “What is a leaner, meaner fighting force going to look like in the future? It has to be a snap-shot of the entire government.”
Demobilizing a bulk of RCAF’s soldiers should not present a problem—many on the army rolls are unfit for service, either too old or permanently crippled by injury, the source said. Additionally, thousands of soldiers listed on the payrolls do not exist, generals have said privately in the past.
But after mustering out the obvious choices, the government has to be careful who it picks to leave the service.
“You do not want just the CPP soldier remaining, you don’t want soldiers only of one faction,” the source said.
The government intends to launch its demobilization effort next month when they plan on releasing an initial 1,500 soldiers from service.
But the plan has already hit an obstacle as soldiers complain about the amount of money the government says it intends to give them once they leave the army.
Though a figure of $1,200 was first mentioned as the demobilization plan took form several years ago, only $240 is being promised to soldiers, many of whom say they will not be able to begin civilian life with their families on such a small amount.
The government is now looking toward the donor community to carry much of the cost of demobilization.
But the prime minister took a jab at donors Wednesday, saying that while they have demanded a reduced armed forces, they have yet to put any of their money forward.