Even when fighting in a country has stopped and soldiers have returned home, there is still more to do for the country to return to peace, speakers said Tuesday at an arms control conference in Phnom Penh.
Most importantly, they said, soldiers must be disarmed, demobilized and re-integrated back into society. Fighters should be told of both their rights and responsibilities, and not to expect unlimited income for having served in the military, said UN adviser Peggy Mason, at the International Conference on Small Arms Proliferation and Trade in the Asia Pacific. “The entire population [also] has suffered” during conflicts, Mason added.
Special attention must be paid to those who carried weapons professionally and are being told to give up their guns, speakers said.
Last year Cambodia demobilized 1,500 soldiers in a pilot project that should lead to the demobilization of more than 30,000. “We collected their guns prior to demobilization,” said Ros Saphan, deputy director of the Department of Policy and Planning at the Defense Ministry.
But some soldiers probably kept their weapons.
When Lee Sothearayuth, a monitoring officer for Working Group for Weapons Reduction interviewed 300 demobilized soldiers in Kampot, Banteay Meanchey and Battambang, he was told by some soldiers not to believe those who denied still having weapons.
Many soldiers said they were afraid for their safety and don’t believe the police will protect them at home, Lee Sothearayuth said earlier this month. “They feel that when they return to their communities, people will not trust them because they have been away a long time,” he said.
Asked what they would do with these arms in civilian life, some soldiers told Lee Sothearayuth they might resort to crime since they have little training outside the military. “Some were joking,” he said, “others may not have been.”
This is why soldiers’ weapons must be collected and destroyed as soon as possible once the fighting stops, said Sami Faltas, surplus weapons program leader at the International Center for Conversion in Germany.
Starting the weapon collection and demobilization process while the military chain of command is still in place makes the process that more effective, he said.
If they wait to disarm soldiers, weapons “may be untraceable because they are now in the hands of individuals,” he said.
But where to store collected weapons and how to keep track of them is a problem in Cambodia, Ros Saphan said. The Cambodian military uses just over half of its 160,000 weapons, he said.
The European Union is working closely with the Defense Ministry on weapons collection and monitoring through its Assistance on Curbing Small Arms and Light Weapons in Cambodia program.
The EU is developing a computer program to register all weapons, said Project Officer Alain Perigaud earlier this month. The project includes training personnel to register, record and keep data on military weapons. Currently, records are often handwritten.
Making this a nationwide system will take time and money since some areas of the country may not even have electrical power to get on the computer network, Perigaud said.
The EU is also working with the Defense Ministry to improve weapons storage. Surplus weapons the military does not need should be quickly destroyed to prevent them from falling into the hands of criminals, Faltas said.
Henny J van der Graaf, EU/ASAC project manager, suggested that the weapons be burned in a “Flame of Peace” ceremony to show that weapons collected in Cambodia are being destroyed.