Pushing the logistical difficulties of reducing Cambodia’s armed forces aside, senior RCAF officials Tuesday instead looked at the more intangible problems of shifting a wartime army to one ready for a period of relative peace.
During the opening of RCAF’s two-day annual meeting, officials struggled with how to bring once warring factions together as a single—more streamlined—fighting force, according to co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath.
“It’s a difficult idea for former enemies, but this is our only chance, we must forget about the past,” he said Tuesday, though he acknowledged that political differences were bound to appear.
“I have my own critics who say I’m not doing enough to put Funcinpec members in higher military positions,” said Prince Sirirath, a Funcinpec appointee.
But an emphasis on the national good, rather than advancing individual political agendas, is emerging within RCAF, he said, perhaps because military officials are facing an increasingly uncertain future as the country begins favoring a national budget that allows less for the armed forces.
Despite the seemingly contradictory nature of building a peace-time army, Prince Sirirath said increased defense spending is necessary.
“The saddest thing about the… armed forces is our lack of budget in the coming time,” he said, echoing the complaints of several RCAF officials who have recently pointed toward failing equipment and alleged incursions along the Thai border as evidence of an underfunded military.
“Right now we have enough [for the soldiers] but we have nothing for the maintenance of our weapons—our helicopters don’t fly, our tanks don’t run, our ship is about to sink.”
Though they acknowledged the decreased need for a large standing army, military officials are looking at a better trained—though heavily scaled-back—fighting force, hoping to eventually reduce RCAF from its current 19 divisions to about three divisions, or 12,000 soldiers.
“Good training depends on financing and it’s hard—impossible—to get good training as we need a lot of cash,” said General Mao Chem, deputy chief of staff for the infantry.
But Prince Sirirath said he knows there is a gentle balance to be struck between military readiness and dismantling the army in a country that has been traumatized by decades of war.
“This is the vision for the next five to 10 years,” Prince Sirirath said.
“But you have to do it very slowly. It’s a very sensitive issue and you cannot push too hard. It will be at least two generations before we achieve this [transformation] completely.”