thmar pouk district, Banteay Meanchey province – Tith Roeun has been fighting for the government for 22 years, yet the organization he has worked for and risked his life for is now, by his estimation, leaving him to fight for himself.
Tith Roeun, the first lieutenant of RCAF Division 7, is just one of the 15,000 soldiers scheduled to be transferred from military to civilian life by the end of the year, and like several other soldiers in this dusty border town, he said the government is betraying him at a time when he needs it most.
“I do not want to be a soldier anymore because I am just used to fighting,” he said, speaking from the back seat of a crowded pick-up truck. “Right now with demobilization, the government does not care about us. When there is war they need us, but when the war is finished and the country is at peace, they need educated people. But they kick us away.”
While the government is planning to provide each demobilized soldier $240 cash and $842 worth of materials, Tith Roeun said the soldiers in his district have either not received the full amount of the government’s disbursements or, in many cases, have been offered materials such as sewing machines that are so useless to the former fighters that they sell them and pocket the money.
The government is providing four packages that the soldiers can choose from. The first includes one house, the second is a generator plus a water pump, the third is a generator and sewing machine and the fourth is a motorbike with a sewing machine, said an official from the demobilization committee. The official said the soldiers can decide which package they want when they leave the military. They will get their packages eight months after they are demobilized, the official said.
In Thmar Pouk, however, the military has organized a lottery system in which the soldiers to be demobilized pick from an random pool which demobilization products they will receive, which further frustrates the soldiers who select unwanted items like water pumps when they would rather have motos, he said.
“If I get a sewing machine, I will sell it because my wife and I do not know how to sew. Why would I need it?” Tith Roeun said.
But when Tith Roeun added up the cost of all the products on his demobilization list, he said the amount came to about $200 less than the earmarked $1,182.
“I am not sure about the rest of the money, or where it goes. This is a lot of money worth of goods—more than $200 that is not included. This is unacceptable,” Tith Roeun said.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-minister of the Ministry of Defense, said he was not aware that some soldiers reported that they were not receiving all that the government promised them. The Prince gave his assurance that the Defense Ministry is working in cooperation with the Demobilization Committee at the Council of Ministers—headed by Svay Sitha, undersecretary of state for the Council of Ministers—to ensure that all demobilized soldiers receive the full $1,182 worth of goods and cash.
Svay Sitha, who is currently in Banteay Meanchey province, could not be reached on Thursday for comment. His assistant, So Cheat, refused to comment on whether the government was providing the full worth of goods.
As for the claims that some of the materials the government is supplying is useless for the soldiers, the Prince said each soldier has a choice of what they receive and therefore no soldier would get a sewing machine if he or she did not want one.
“Some of the soldiers have requested that they get a buffalo if they want to be a farmer, others said they want construction material and still others said they wanted a sewing machine if they want to become garment workers. It is their choice,” the Prince said.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath said he had not heard any complaints from any of the more than 6,000 soldiers who have been demobilized since the government started in mid-October. He said the government is continuing to transfer around 1,200 to 1,500 troops to civilian life each week to meet their goal of 15,000 demobilized soldiers by the end of the year.
The Prince’s comments come as little consolation to the soldiers in Thmar Pouk district. Pom Suong, 58, said he has been in the military since 1960. During that time, his salary was more that enough to support his family. But now, the military gives him only enough money to last him five to seven days out of the month. He makes the rest of his money from a side business that he owns, selling coffee and noodles.
Like Tith Roeun, he said he feels betrayed by the government that he risked his life for almost his entire life. H saw the list of demobilization products the government will provide and laughed about the government wanting to give him a sewing machine.
“The government should give us $1,182 in cash and allow us use it the way we want,” he said, adding that he could use the money to build up his roadside stall.
He disagreed with the idea that the soldiers would waste the money on frivolous items or not share it with their families.
“There might be some soldiers who waste the money, but that would be a small number,” Pom Suong said. “Most would use it to help their businesses. We just want the government to provide what we believe is useful.”