A vast government program to demobilize a quarter of the military and retrain those men and women for peacetime jobs has come under fire from a number of observers who say the program has been too slow to deliver on its promises of aid for the retiring soldiers.
The government’s $42 million demobilization program—first devised a decade ago during Untac and finally agreed to in late 2000—should see the release of 30,000 troops from the government’s payroll, cutting the military to about 100,000 soldiers.
So far, about 15,000 soldiers have been demobilized.
Since its inception, however, the program has been riddled by delays as soldiers complain that they are cast off without promised aid packages or support. Some soldiers say that when they do get their aid packages, they are either given little time to choose between one of several options, or they do not get the specific aid package that they have chosen.
“I have been informed that none of the 15,000 soldiers who have been demobilized have received any package at all,” said Kao Kim Hourn, director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “They received the government package of $240,” he added, referring to a cash payment that the government has granted to many of the demobilized soldiers. It is roughly equal to one year’s pay.
In remote Samlot district, Battambang province, where civil war raged on for nearly three decades, battle weary soldiers were told more than two years ago that they would soon see cows, motorcycles, water pumps and home-building materials to help them readjust to a peacetime life of farming.
Sann Son, commander of the submilitary region of Samlot district, said it wasn’t until January that 17 of his 31 soldiers received their packages. The remaining 16 soldiers may receive their packages this month, he said.
Government officials have argued that the mass purchase of aid packages has been slowed by the vendors, who cannot supply the material fast enough.
Still, that has left scores of former soldiers trying to scrape by without their paychecks or military rice rations.
Colonel Don Higgins, defense attache at the Australian Embassy, said soldiers in Svay Rieng have not yet received their aid packages.
“It has not yet caused a problem, but if this were to continue it would create a problem,” said Higgins, saying a sub-region commander told him that the soldiers are restless. “Some of these guys were demobilized in October or late November. It’s now June.”
The soldiers he had spoken to received $240 plus a 20-kg bag of rice, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. “The biggest loss was the loss of the military rice ration. It has hit the soldiers hardest.”
“The sad thing about it is that if the international community does not have faith [in the Cambodian government] to deliver on the program, they may be reluctant to put any more money into it,” he said.
The full demobilization project is expected to cost $45 million, according to the World Bank. The World Bank said it would pledge $15 million to the project, but the remainder will have to come from donors or the government.
The project has proved popular with donor nations eager to see Cambodia disarm itself, though some donors are now questioning if their money is actually going to the soldiers.
A member of the Dutch parliament raised the issue June 1, standing on the floor of the parliament to and alleging that the money granted by the Dutch to the demobilization effort was not going to the soldiers.
In reality, Higgins said, the demobilization program should probably be even larger than it is since the government needs fewer soldiers, not more, to have a well-trained military.
Even after demobilization, the government will retain a standing military of some 100,000, according to government figures.
“My personal view is that, if it’s around 90,000 to 100,000, it will be poorly paid, poorly trained and poorly led,” Higgins said.
“The ideal size is a force in which the soldiers receive a living wage, they are adequately trained for their mission and they enjoy good leadership. Then it’s just a question of the government determining how much money it can afford to pay,” he said.
The current pay of $25 a month is so low that it practically requires soldiers to get a second job, interfering with their training, he said. Something closer to $50 or $60 a month with a rice ration would be more reasonable, Higgins suggested.
There’s a further problem caused by the delays: By the time the aid packages are delivered, the soldiers have already moved on to their new life.
“It’s not really demobilization, because demobilization kind of implies that there are formed military units ready for battle that will be taken off of battle status,” said Higgins. “That may have been the case in 1994, but that’s certainly not the case in 2002.
“The soldiers are at best part-time soldiers, who show up on an infrequent basis for rice and their pay. They are not training. The term was correct when it was first implied in 1994, during the Untac period, which was the genesis of this. This is unfinished business,” he said.
The most comprehensive study conducted on the demobilized soldiers so far suggests that they face a bleak life after leaving the military, especially if they do not receive the aid that was promised to them.
A report issued in March by the Working Group for Weapons Reduction, funded by the German government through the GTZ Demobilization project, said it interviewed some 2,634 demobilized soldiers.
Three quarters of the soldiers said they were excited to return to civilian life and did not want to be soldiers any longer, but seven out of 10 said they did not know how they would support their families after retiring from the military.
Nine out of 10 demobilized soldiers said the government’s military funding must be cut back now that civil war has ended.
Nearly all of the demobilized soldiers—97 percent—said they had already handed in their weapons between 1994 and 1999. But two-thirds of the soldiers said they knew of hidden caches of guns and explosives that were not yet returned—a fearsome arsenal that lay in storage, buried in jungle hide-outs.
The report concluded that soldiers should be asked to hand in their weapons before demobilization, since nearly all of the soldiers claimed to have turned in their weapons but most of them knew of places they could go to get caches of hidden weapons.
“Failure to collect and destroy weapons may cause communities to fear that ex-soldiers will pose a threat to their security,” the report said.
The report also makes sweeping calls for the involvement of NGOs, saying they should be allowed to interview the demobilized soldiers.
An NGO should be allowed to meet the demobilized soldiers so that they know the soldiers actually exist, a reference to the suspected practice of the military using “ghost” soldiers to pad the payroll, with high ranking military officials collecting the pay for soldiers who are on the payroll but don’t actually exist.
According to the Council for the Demobilization of Armed Forces, exactly 15,000 soldiers have been demobilized. They include: 1,359 women and 13,641 men; in categories that sometimes overlap, there are 5,879 disabled, 3,685 chronically ill, 2,326 over 55, 3,010 healthy soldiers, 3,180 senior soldiers, 6,449 junior soldiers and 5,371 ordinary soldiers.
The demobilized soldiers come from Kompong Speu, Kampot, Kandal, Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Cham, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, Stung Treng and Kompong Thom provinces.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)