Feeling constant hunger pangs has become a daily humiliation for Lim Sethya—an embarrassment not befitting an RCAF second lieutenant.
Lim Sethya says his monthly salary of $12.50 pays only for his morning meal and a cigarette. Sometimes, if he is “patient,” he can go without breakfast in order to save some money for his wife.
“My wife says every morning that we have a pot but no rice. We are mocked by our colleagues. They say if I die, I should die at home because if I die in the forest my wife would not receive any money for a funeral,” he said.
Lim Sethya represents the current face of the military—hungry, poor and longing for a time when being a soldier meant you could “drink, eat and spend money on our families.”
A soldier since 1980, Lim Sethya has seen plenty of fighting and has, by his admission, taken his share of gratuities from motorists at roadside checkpoints. It may not have been a safe, honest life, but he said that as a soldier, “we did not care about the future because we have an idea that today we are alive, but tomorrow we might have no life.”
Now the future has caught up with Lim Sethya and the thousands of RCAF soldiers in similar positions.
These are the soldiers who will remain in active service after the government transfers an estimated 30,000 fighters to civilian life by the end of 2002 during a massive demobilization effort. They will be forced to live with the budget cuts in the military that will most likely reduce their already small wages. In addition, the soldiers must fill a new role in society during a time of nationwide peace.
“As you move toward democracy, you have to transfer the military to civilian life, take out a large portion of the military’s budget, cut the army down and especially redefine what their role in society will be, which is a very difficult process,” said Dr Eva Busza, senior adviser for the National Democratic Institute’s Security Sector Reforms Program.
Busza, who is in Cambodia for a two-day conference starting today that will examine current civil-military relations in the country, has analyzed civilian-military relationships in Russia, East Timor, Nicaragua and Peru and other post-conflict countries throughout the world.
“When the East Timor paramilitary soldiers returned to the villages after the killings, and they had to be brought back into society, the villages would use traditional means of reconciliation—the [soldiers] would admit the crime and then apologize,” Busza said.
In Russia, Busza said the government conducted a large-scale demobilization of the fabled Red Army, whose members were accustomed to being thought of as national heroes. Once demobilized, the soldiers had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life and lacked the basic skills and job opportunities needed to integrate successfully into post-Soviet society.
The demobilized soldiers in Cambodia are facing similar issues. An estimated 13,000 have been demobilized since mid-October, and some have voiced concerns that the demobilization package the government is offering them is either not enough or contains materials—such as sewing machines—that are not useful for the switch to nonmilitary life.
But just as important as the demobilized soldiers are the 95,000 soldiers who will remain in active service. The Ministry of Defense has had its budget slashed in half since 1994, and another $4.5 million in cuts have been proposed by the Ministry of Finance this year.
“One problem is that people are just looking at the 30,000 troops to be demobilized, and once the government reaches that number, people will think the demobilization effort is over—but it won’t be over,” one Western military expert said. “People are merely looking at the numbers, but not the conduct and capability of the present military, and just looking at the numbers is not a sophisticated approach.”
The expert suggested either more money be spent on the existing pool of troops, or else the Ministry of Defense should increase even further the number of demobilized soldiers in order to adequately support the soldiers who remain.
“If the soldiers don’t have a living wage, then it’s hard to blame them when they go to some other means to put food on their table.” he said.