Sitting next to his friend’s motorbike outside the Royal Palace on Thursday, Bunn Naroth reflected on the new law on military conscription with a casualness usually reserved for discussing the weather.
An 18-year-old student and a potential target for the draft, Bunn Naroth said he was aware of the law, but was unclear of how it would affect him.
But on reflection, he decided, the legislation was probably a bad idea.
“It should be based on a volunteer principal rather than conscription,” he said. “Not many people like to wage war.”
The National Assembly on Wednesday passed a controversial law on compulsory military service, legally obliging all Cambodian men between the ages of 18 and 30 to register and, if required, serve 18 months in RCAF. Those who dodge the draft may face one year in prison during times of peace, and three years behind bars in times of war, according to the legislation.
But on the streets of Phnom Penh on Thursday, young men said they had given the law little or no thought. And while several said they were opposed to the legislation, others said they would not mind joining RCAF if it did not impact on their studies, while several said they would welcome any employment they could get.
Chea Ratha, a 25-year-old from Prey Veng province working as a temporary laborer in Phnom Penh, said he had no problem with being drafted, as long as there was good pay.
“I’m willing to go, but I need at least $100 a month to support my family,” he said.
Kim Sok Samnang, a 19-year-old English student at Norton University, said he was unaware of the new law and was troubled to hear of it.
“It’s such a waste of time,” he said. “The younger generation doesn’t want to hold guns, they want to hold books.”
Tola Kiang, 23, an Information Technology student at Norton, said he was more than willing to serve his country during war, but worried about how 18 months in the military would affect his schooling in a time of peace.
“It’s not necessary,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any war as our country is a democracy and has elections.”
The SRP has claimed that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP may use the law to round up young men that do not support their party.
But Khieu Kanharith, government spokesman and Minister of Information, said this was not the case. If anything, he said, the opposition should feel empowered by the law.
“They should be happy. If the government allows them to hold the gun they can have a coup,” he joked.
The Youth and Student Club Association, which represents 26 youth groups including the Student Movement for Democracy, issued a statement urging the Senate to delay ratifying the law.
The association also said that young men should have been consulted before the Assembly passed the law.
“The draft law should have been given to the young people to discuss before being submitted to the National Assembly,” the statement reads.
The Khmer Youth Association’s chief of education and advocacy Seng Rithy said the association will appeal to King Norodom Sihamoni not to sign off on the law and said the government should focus its attention on more pressing matters.
“The government should find more investment to create more jobs for the youth as only one out of 10 university graduates get jobs,” he said.
CPP lawmaker Pal Sam Eoun said the law will not necessarily impact on students’ education.
“In special situations, students can ask to delay their conscription,” he said, adding that those called upon to serve can request a delay of up to three years.
Pal Sam Eoun added that if young men are the breadwinners of their families, they will be exempt from conscription.
“We have more old soldiers than young soldiers,” he added. “We need good and powerful soldiers.”
Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, said she was concerned that corruption would creep into the draft.
She also questioned whether building up an army was a sensible idea.
“Cambodia is a small country between two powerful countries,” she said. “There’s no way to protect it other than diplomacy.”