US Contractor Pushes Plan For Soldiers

A private contractor’s plan to build thousands of homes on government land for demobilized soldiers has stirred interest among government leaders who face the daunting task in the next three years of easing some 30,000 soldiers into retirement to trim the military’s payroll.

The plan would provide each retiring soldier with a 50-square- meter home and 5 hectares of land in exchange for a promise to live on the land for at least five years and repay a five-year mortgage of approximately $2,000.

“This is reform and it’s going to make everybody look good,” said Geoffrey Blume, a retired colonel from the US Army Corps of En­gineers and the irrepressible pitchman behind the resettlement project. Blume, who has lived in Phnom Penh since 1991, has organized the project under his own NGO, the Development Advisory Group.

Blume said the project is just in its infancy—he still needs funding—but points to a number of recent successes in winning government approval and attention. He has met with top leaders of the military, including Pol Sa­roeun, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief.

Pol Saroeun said he supports the plan, if funding can be found. “I think it is a good idea, but it needs money,” he said. “Now [Blume] is trying to find the money out of the donor countries to help.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen approved the idea last month, though he said it should be a separate project from the demobilization effort, effectively cutting Blume off from potentially millions of dollars from foreign donors eager to see Cambodia diminish its armed forces.

“We’re just moving one step at a time,” Blume said. He said he has $10,000 of his own money invested in the project so far, but is determined to find funding.

No one denies the need for some kind of plan to accommodate the soldiers. Some 20,000 soldiers have at least 20 years of service and are nearing retirement, according to government figures.

RCAF expects to demobilize up to 31,500 soldiers by the end of 2004. Many of the soldiers have had no other job during their years in service, and lack any marketable skills.

A pilot demobilization program launched May 1, 2000, saw the release of 1,005 soldiers in four provinces; they were each given 12 months of salary, six months rations of rice and canned fish, and a kit of basic household tools. The soldiers were also supposed to be given a choice of one more piece of assistance. Options included an ox or cow, a water pump or renovations to a house, for example. But that extra assistance has been withheld as government officials discuss the demobilization efforts, according to Annie Nut, a field officer for GTZ, a German NGO spearheading the demobilization effort.

Still, the government has unofficial plans to release some 15,000 soldiers in June in its first step toward demobilization, according to Nut. Soldiers are currently being chosen for the program, she said.

It’s not known how much money the government has to pay for demobilization. Svay Sitha, undersecretary of state and the government official in charge of demobilization, was unavailable for comment Wednesday; he did not respond to a fax sent to his office and could not be reached by phone.

As months pass, the demobilization effort has earned critics who say it is moving too slowly: donors criticize the government for taking too long to cut its military. The government has responded by saying it lacks the funds to pay for the demobilization.

Enter Blume. On a plot of government land in Stung Chral, Kompong Speu province, he built a model home for the settlement project. He says available government land there could accommodate 250 families.

Blume says $1.6 million would be enough to fund a pilot project in Stung Chral, paying for building materials and trainers to teach the retiring soldiers how to build roads and homes, farm their land and manage livestock. Blume envisions the pilot project as the spark for a nationwide series of settlements, each taking hundreds of families, training soldiers in new skills and turning vacant government land into self-sustaining settlements.

The resettlement project would use RCAF-owned land. Blume said he knows of 200,000 hec­tares that would be available.

As the soldiers become self-sufficient, they would repay the cost of their homes, making it possible for the donor to recoup costs, if everything worked as planned. The soldiers would earn full title to the house in five years if they managed to make monthly payments of approximately $30, or enough to repay the estimated cost of $2,000 per house.

“We’re not giving them anything, just a boost,” Blume said.

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