Demobilized Soldiers in Kampot Return to a Peaceful Life
kampot district, Kampot province – The fields here are turning neon green as the rainy season rice crop takes root. Villagers bent at the waist and knee-deep in water shove fistfuls of rice seed into the mud. They send hoes slicing down into clods of earth, preparing more land for planting.
This is the life Khuon Samon always imagined for himself, working in the fields near his neighbors and his children. And it is a life he has dearly missed. Twenty years ago he left the farm fields and walked onto the battlefield. But now, at 56, Khuon Samon has returned to his old way of living.
“It was just this year I had the chance to grow rice together with my family,” he said.
After two decades in the government army, Khuon Samon was demobilized in May along with 249 others in Kampot province. They were the first of what will be more than 30,000 soldiers drummed out of the army in coming years as Cambodia shifts from war to peace.
“When I joined the army, it was to serve the country,” Khuon Samon said. “Now that the country is peaceful, I am happy to be growing rice with my family to feed my young kids and send them to school.”
While Khuon Samon and other demobilized soldiers here said they are glad to be out of the army, they expected more. They said the initial compensation package—$240, some food and household goods—is not nearly enough for them to support their families and represents a poor show of gratitude for their service to the country. They said they need land, cows and equipment if they are to make a living as farmers or small businessmen.
They also complain the downsizing process itself is not fair. There are allegations of favoritism and corruption, with commanders demobilizing able-bodied soldiers who are not loyal to them or who cannot pay a bribe. Soldiers and provincial officials also said some people have bought the names of “ghost soldiers” to receive their demobilization package. Army officials acknowledge there is some corruption in the system, but said it is inevitable because the army is largely decentralized, with local commanders making the logistic decisions.
Government leaders share the soldiers’ frustrations. They agree that $240 is not enough, but blame donor countries for refusing to give more. This week Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to suspend demobilization efforts if donors did not come through with more funds.
A pilot demobilization project for 1,500 soldiers in four provinces ends today with a ceremony in Battambang province, where 421 soldiers will leave the army. Hun Sen said he will stop the process today unless donors give him more support. But he also pledged this week to increase each demobilized soldier’s compensation by $500, with or without donors’ help.
Donors said the money they have pledged has been allocated but some have privately criticized the government for lacking the political will to make tough decisions necessary to reduce the size of the armed forces. They also emphasize that demobilization is a complicated and delicate process that cannot be accomplished by giving the soldiers a lump of cash, then leaving them to spend it however they want.
Instead of just money, they said, former soldiers need tools, skills training and health care. Some soldiers need cows or land. Many villages need roads or wells. In most cases, effective demobilization involves not only providing a safety net for the soldiers, but developing the community around them.
There is also the question of how much aid decommissioned soldiers should receive when their neighbors are regularly in the same dire situation, lacking access to food, education and health care.
“From a certain point on, you cannot distinguish these soldiers from the rural poor,” said Colin Gleichmann, of German Technical Cooperation, or GTZ, which is overseeing demobilization programs in Kampot and Kompong Thom provinces. “Yes, they are poor, but they are among the rural poor.”
Like many demobilized soldiers, Khuon Samon still wears his army fatigues whether he is in the fields or in his village chatting with friends. Now there is a dark circle on the shoulder of the faded shirt where the RCAF patch has been removed, his government service finished.
He joined Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government in 1958 and worked as an intelligence officer. He stayed in Phnom Penh after the coup d’etat that overthrew the prince in 1970, but by 1973, with Lon Nol’s government rounding up men to join the army and fight the Khmer Rouge, Khuon Samon fled here to Kampot province.
He lived here through the Khmer Rouge regime, working as a farmer. But because he was literate and could speak French, the Khmer Rouge fingered him as a professor and sent him to a reeducation camp where they “tried to clean my ideas,” he said.
After the Khmer Rouge regime, he served briefly as a commune chief then became a soldier. “I joined the army to protect the country from the Khmer Rouge because the Khmer Rouge was a very cruel regime,” he said.
In the beginning he led a squad of 12 soldiers. After being sent to Phnom Penh for six months of military training, he was appointed deputy commander of commune soldiers. He moved steadily through the ranks and by 1984, he was commander of the district soldiers, overseeing more than 700 troops.
“At that time the fighting with the Khmer Rouge was very heavy,” he said. “I am very sorry for the dead men because now the country is peaceful and they cannot live in this peace.”
As fighting here died down in the early 1990s, Khuon Samon was transferred to a desk job, where he worked until he left the army in May. He said his demobilization is good for both him and the government. Maybe with the money saved on soldiers’ salaries, he said, the government can build up other parts of its budget.
But Khuon Samon mostly worries about how he and his seven children will get by. Reading from a special card that identifies him as a demobilized soldier, Khuon Samon ticks through his compensation package: 924,700 riel (about $240), 150 kg of rice, 2.5 kg of canned fish, 3.5 kg of frying oil, a kilogram of iodized salt, a mosquito net, a krama, a bed sheet and a mat.
Most of the money, 750,000 riel, bought a 120-square meter piece of farm land, adding to the small piece of land he already owns. The rest he is using to buy food and send his children to school. What he really needs now is a cow, but the money is gone. “The money cannot buy one leg of a buffalo,” he said. “I cannot feed the family growing rice on the land I have.”
A while ago, Khuon Samon heard soldiers would be given $1,200 when they were demobilized. “I think that is fair,” he said. Then he heard the government will give more than the $240 he received. So now he works in the fields and waits.
Talk of whittling down the size of Cambodia’s army began after the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, nearly a decade before the first soldier would be demobilized. Since demobilization discussions began, there have been persistent disagreements between the government and donors over how much soldiers should receive as they join civilian life and how the aid should be packaged.
The government originally wanted to give each demobilized soldier $2,000. In 1996, the World Bank said each soldier would need more than $900, based on an estimate of the goods a family needs to survive for one year. In 1999, the figure was recalculated to $1,200. For 55,000 soldiers—the proposed number to be demobilized at the time—the cash disbursement would have totaled $66 million. The total cost of the program over five years, including administration and implementation costs, would have been $105 million.
Because this program would have been funded largely by the World Bank, Cambodia would have to borrow money, which did not settle well with donors. There was also concern over how the lump sum of $1,200 would be used, Gleichmann said. “No one could ensure it was invested productively,” he said. “All the donors made it very clear they wouldn’t support it.”
Over the years since demobilization was first proposed, Cambodia has gradually become a country at peace. Many soldiers are not active, and because of their small salary, they have to find other work to supplement their income. “That makes their economic situation different and it makes the package different,” Gleichmann said.
The $240 cash payment, which comes from the Ministry of Defense budget, represents a year’s salary, with most demobilized soldiers earning about $20 a month.
The rice, oil, fish and salt is provided by the World Food Program. GTZ supplies the kramas, mats, mosquito nets and sheets. GTZ will soon be giving household kits to each demobilized soldier that include a hoe, an ax, a knife, soap, nails, a hammock, bucket and tarps, paid for by the Japanese government.
The soldiers are also given medical treatment. At each demobilization camp, the International Organization for Migration conducted medical screenings of the soldiers in the days leading up to the demobilization ceremonies. They were given blood tests, psychological examinations and prescribed medications. For many, this was the most thorough medical checkup they had ever had.
Seventy percent of the soldiers demobilized in the pilot project are either over 55, disabled, women or chronically ill. Gleichmann said some of these people could be considered “ghost soldiers” because they were technically in the army but not serving a vital purpose. Some may have received a salary, though they stayed at home. “Of course these people haven’t been marching every day. But this was the exact reason they [were demobilized],” he said.
The other 30 percent are considered able-bodied men. All of the soldiers now leaving the army were picked for demobilization by their provincial or district commanders. Most volunteered.
General Meas Sophea, a senior infantry commander and vice-chairman of the demobilization committee, said there may be some irregularities in how soldiers are picked for demobilization. But he said there are too many soldiers in too many areas for Phnom Penh-based army officials to have complete control over the process.
The government has had some success in eliminating corruption and inefficiency. Last year, aided by a new computerized registration system, about 15,000 soldiers who did not show up for registration were cut from the payroll. There were another 9,433 cases of widows collecting their dead husbands’ salaries. They were transferred to the care of Ministry of Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs.
In addition to the 1,500 soldiers demobilized under the pilot program, another 10,000 are scheduled to leave the army each year for the next three years. With the demobilization and removal of the widows, this will drop the government’s official army enrollment to just under 100,000.
“Once they reach 100,000, the main issue will be reform of the armed forces,” Gleichmann said. The government is now working on a White Paper, plotting the future of the Cambodia’s military. “The big problem will be for the army to refocus,” Gleichmann said. “What do you do with the people who remain professional soldiers? How do you train them and what do you train them for?”
Ka Him doesn’t have to train for anything anymore. After 17 years as an army private, he no longer carries a gun, no longer answers commands with a salute. As the afternoon sun casts long shadows across the fields of Trapeang Kanhchet village, Ka Him is finishing a day of plowing and planting with his neighbors.
Like Khuon Samon, he is glad his army days are behind him. “My native life is farming, not being a soldier,” he said. “But at that time, the duty of a man was to be a soldier. I did not like it, but I had to join.”
Now he can spend more time with his family. But he also loses his monthly salary that filled in the gaps when money was short. Last year there was terrible flooding in this area that destroyed most of the crops and he doesn’t know what he will do if it rains like that again. He can’t fall back on his demobilization pay, it’s already gone.
He bought a baby cow with 500,000 riel. But one cow is not enough since he needs two cows to plow his field. So he will raise this cow for three years and sell it, and hopefully the money will be enough to buy two small cows. In the meantime, the money his wife makes from selling fish will be used to rent cows for plowing—at 80,000 riel a year—and buy food until the rice crop is ready.
The rest of Ka Him’s demobilization pay was used to get his land back. In 1992, with his family low on food and the rice crops failing, he borrowed money from people in his village to get by.
“This is common for the people here,” said Ka Him, who is 46 with six children. “And when we lack food and face starvation, we go to borrow from our neighbors.”
With the debt erased, he now owns his land again.
The 150 kg of rice from the government is already gone. With a big family, he explains, food disappears quickly. “It is not enough,” he said. “We can live for just a few months and it is gone.”
Meng Soun, Kampot’s second deputy governor, has heard similar complaints from several demobilized soldiers in his province. “The government policy sounds good. But when they do it, it is not good,” he said. “The government does not give them what they need to be a farmer, growing rice to feed their family.”
“They do not have land or buffalo for growing rice,” he said. “If the government wants to give support to the people, they don’t have to give them money. The government should change the money into buffalo, an ox cart or other things for growing rice. If they have no land, give them land.”
Soldiers often do no know the best way to the utilize the money, Meng Suon said.
“They over spend and the money is finished very soon,” he said.
Yet, he agrees with the soldiers that giving them $240 for their service is not enough. “It is like sending them off to die.”
According to Gleichmann, the $240 figure is misleading. The pilot program costs $2.25 million, which comes out to $1,500 for each soldier. Minus the cost of administering and implementing the program, an average of about $1,000 in cash and supplies is allotted to each soldier, though the figure will vary depending on community needs. More money will be put into areas that have been left out of Cambodia’s peacetime progress of recent years.
There will be more money invested in former Khmer Rouge zones, for example, tying them into the rest of Cambodia. “We also see it as an investment into security,” Gleichmann said. “The fear is always that demobilized soldiers can become a security threat.”
The $500 referred to by Hun Sen this week is a budget line in the demobilization plan, with $300 going to house repairs and $200 going to agriculture. This will be covered by donors though they do not yet know how it will be administered. What they do not want to do, Gleichmann said, is hand it out as cash.
“There you come to the core of the different interests between the donors and the army,” Gleichmann said. “The army wants the biggest package. Especially after the $1,200 was communicated down the line to the smallest village and the smallest soldier.”
“If you give them a big golden handshake like $1200, they will become more dependent on the government,” he said. “They will live for one or two years entirely on cash, which they’ve never been able to do before. What comes after that? This is not in the interest of the country.”
“The problem here is the government wants to announce a uniform package everyone gets,” Gleichmann said. “Development is more complicated than that.”
Individual soldiers, for example, will also be responsible for utilizing aid programs. “It requires the motivation of the veteran,” Gleichmann said. “There is a strong community reintegration program.”
Two veterans are now taking courses at the women’s development center in Kampot, one in sewing and the other in English. Three other soldiers are enrolling in skills training classes.
The government is now working on a plan to solve one of the biggest complaints of demobilized soldiers—providing them with land —according to Meas Sophea. If former soldiers do not have land in their village, they can volunteer to resettle with their families, probably along the Thai border, where they will be given a plot of land.
An obvious drawback with the plan, Meas Sophea said, is that not all former soldiers will want to move so far from their homes and their friends. Details of the land giveaways are still being worked out, but the government is committed to looking after former soldiers, Meas Sophea said. “We will not let them live in hardship,” he pledged.
Land is what Van Moeur needs most. “My family still faces starvation. We still lack food,” he said. “If I had land, I could grow corn or rice and sell it at the market to get money for my family.”
His demobilization money disappeared as soon as he received it. During hard times, when his wife was sick and there was no food for the family, he borrowed money from neighbors. The government payment settled his debts but left him with no money. Of the 150 kg of rice, 20 kg remains. “That will not last two weeks,” he said.
At 70, Van Moeur is one of the oldest soldiers demobilized. He also has perhaps the longest service record. He joined the French colonial army a half century ago after the Khmer Issarak resistance movement killed his father. Serving under the French was the best time because soldiers received enough food and enough pay, he said.
“The soldiers never faced starvation,” he said.
As a soldier for Sihanouk, life was harder, with less food and less money. But it was worse still when the Khmer Rouge took over the country during his time as a Lon Nol soldier.
“If I did not hide that [from the Khmer Rouge] I might not still be alive now,” he said.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he said he went back into the army and spent his time making forays into the jungle to persuade guerrillas to defect. Later he drove trucks for the army and was attacked three times by the Khmer Rouge.
For all of this service, he said, he deserves more. He thought he would be given land after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
When the Vietnamese-backed government was distributing land to villagers, Van Moeur asked for a plot of his own. “You don’t need land because you are a soldier, you have a salary,” he recalls government officials telling him.
With demobilization, Van Moeur thought he would get more money, enough for some land. The intricacies of the demobilization plan being hammered out in Phnom Penh have not yet filtered down to Van Moeur. So, like other former soldiers here, he is left to draw his own conclusions about the army policy and his future.
“When they did the demobilizing, I became like a piece of debris flowing in the river, never hitting the soil. My life is not safe,” he said. “I have stress in my heart. What they said and what they did was different. What they said was good. What they did was bad.”