Young Men Frown on RCAF Conscription Plan

Huot Ratha is 15, and while he’s not yet certain about much in life, he is certain of one thing: he does not want to be in the military. Not even for a short time. 

Unlike generations of young Cambodians before him, Huot Ratha, a Phnom Penh High School student, is not growing up in a Cambodia at war, and that’s the way he likes it.

Cambodia has been at peace for more than three years and old animosities between political foes, if not forgotten, have at least been set aside.

With no war to fight and few threats envisaged in the near future, the military’s plans are now focused on retiring 55,000 soldiers from its ranks.

But, as the first White Paper on defense unveiled last week shows, a completely demilitarized Cambodia is not what the future holds.

The Defense Ministry’s plan to begin, “under suitable circumstances,” compulsory military service means that Huot Ratha may be obliged after his 18th birthday to don an soldier’s uniform and spend as many as 18 months in the military.

The prospect is not inviting, Huot Ratha said.

“I would do any work except this,” he said. Soldiering “is not good for people. It always des­troys people’s property, people lives and leaves [orphaned] children behind.”

Launching the White Paper, co-Defense Minister Tea Banh said last week that there is no budget yet assigned for the compulsory service program, but the plan is on the drawing board and officials are working on a law.

Although the country’s military is bloated with the men and women who fought during the previous decades of conflict, there will always be a need for new blood in RCAF after demobilization, Tea Banh said.

“Almost every country has compulsory [military] service,” Tea Banh said. “Now it is time for us to do it.”

Tea Banh would not speculate as to when a draft law on compulsory service would be ready but said the service period would last around 18 months for each conscript.

Wat Phnom High School student Phork Chantha, 16, isn’t enamored either at the idea of spending part of his youth as a soldier, which he says now carries a strong social stigma in certain circles.

Unlike when the military was needed to protect against the Khmer Rouge, soldiering is no longer considered a noble profession but something best avoided, especially if one wants to marry well.

“If I am a soldier, I will be refused by the parents of the girl I wish to engage. Parents like only businessmen, rich people and those who work for [aid] organizations and the government,” Phork Chantha said.

Norton University student Kim Siden, 22, said he would be willing to do national service. But, if he had to do it, he would prefer to do it as a military commander.

“I am willing to be a soldier. This does not mean I want to go to war or see killing between Cambodians, but to protect our land against neighboring countries if they invade us,” Kim Siden said.

Co-Minister of Defense Sisowath Sirirath says he understands the fears of young people facing the possibility of compulsory service. But in the five or even 10 years before it is implemented he hopes the image of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces will change.

After demobilization—and with finances forthcoming—RCAF will rebuild as a respectable and well-trained military in which young recruits from high school and university will be happy, Sisowath Sirirath said.

“I am working very hard with co-Minister Tea Banh to do this,” he said, adding that more opportunities are becoming available each year for RCAF officers to receive training overseas.

Making RCAF and its commanders more professional must be a priority, said Dien Del, a Funcinpec member of parliament and chairman of the National Assembly’s committee on defense and interior.

Public disdain for the military is strong because ordinary people can see that some commanders think more about themselves than the men they have been entrusted to lead, he said.

“[RCAF commanders] now have villas and cars. But they still compete with each other over the size of their villas and cars. They do not compete to make their soldiers better,” Dien Del said.

The compulsory recruitment plan is not the first time the country’s youth have been called upon to serve the military, he said.

During then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime in the 1950s and into the 1960s, military service was compulsory, he says.

But the practice was essentially limited to the children of poor families and farmers as most middle-class children and those related to government officials avoided service, Dien Del said.

In the 1980s young people were also rounded up and sent to the Thai border to fight the Khmer Rouge and other resistance forces.

But there was no legal basis for the conscription and the recruits were sent to the front with so little training they could hardly shoot a rifle, Dien Del said.

As unlikely as the scenario may seem, Dien Del said, all youth will participate in the new military service plan and family connections must have no bearing on the selection process.

“If something happened to our country, who would we select to fight? Most of the current soldiers are already too old,” he said. “What age will they be in five or 10 years?”

Ensuring an annual flow of young, fit recruits to commence basic training underpins most governments’ needs for compulsory service, said Australian Defense Attache Don Higgins.

In Cambodia it would also provide for a reserve force which can be called upon at times of crisis, such as natural disasters, Higgins said.

“Dealing with disasters like the flooding of the Mekong River, they could conscript people into the army to deal with it,” he said. “It’s a reasonable idea.”

A Western expert on demobilization said it is too early to take a firm position on the compulsory recruitment plan as few details have been worked out.

The demobilization of Cambodia’s military is a national priority, but the power to recruit young, healthy people to the armed forces is the provision of many countries around the world, he said.

“We have to see which way it will be worked out,” he said. “It does not mean to increase [troop] numbers but to attract better motivated young people.”

Chhum Chheang, an RCAF three-star general, said he would like compulsory military service to begin at once.

But more feasibly, he said, it should start when demobilization has been achieved, sometime around 2004.

Chhum Chheang, who remembers national service during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period, said there can be no special dispensation for the powerful.

“It must be done fairly,” he said. “Not only from poor families. All people from the rich and government families, whether [the time] is long or short, must join.”

Soth Chan Kosal, 13, the son of a soldier, said he doesn’t mind serving in the military. But, like Chhum Chheang, he said it shouldn’t just be poor people who serve as foot soldiers. “If rich people are soldiers,” he said, “they are only commanders.”

 

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