Cambodian Draft Pulls In the Willing and the Resistant
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
WITH four of her sons in Cambodia's military and one more soon to be drafted, Khem Savarn may be forgiven if she complains a little. ``I don't know why they all had to go,'' says Mrs. Khem, who lives in Kompong Speu. ``It's difficult for me to farm the land without my sons. And I fear for them. My roof leaks, I have little money and little help from the commune.''
Every family in her village has at least one son in the military. In fact, almost every family with young grown sons in Cambodia has been touched by the military draft, especially over the past year.
The government has stepped up conscriptions to strengthen its forces after the Vietnamese invasion force withdrew in September.
In the province of Kompong Chhnang, for instance, officials have tripled the number of battalions in two years. ``It's difficult for us to take a son from his mother,'' says province official Toch Yoeun. ``But we must have fighters.'' The government's expanded forces face three guerrilla factions tied in a loose coalition under Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The largest resistance force is the Khmer Rouge, whose bloody 1975-79 rule under Pol Pot and continuing violence since then have helped the government recruit.
``My sons just think of the time under Pol Pot when people did not have enough to eat,'' says Khem. ``If we do not fight, who will fight for us?''
The regime in Phnom Penh first began an organized draft in 1983, four years after it was installed by Vietnam. But only in August was a law on conscription passed by the National Assembly. The government has met stiff opposition as many seek to avoid the draft and as complaints mount over its unfairness.
For the equivalent of $23, the rich have been able to pay off local officials and keep their sons from the military. But with three recruitment drives a year, ``eventually a family runs out of money and we get the son,'' says Mr. Toch.
A similar case is found for young men who become Buddhist monks for a year or two. ``It is difficult for our soldiers when some of their friends can escape Army duty by being monks,'' says Kompong Speu vice governor Bin Sareth. ``But we get them anyway when they finish their time in the monastery.''
Another complaint is that only the poorest get drafted and sent to dangerous areas. ``Children of the poor go to the battle front, children of the rich serve as police, and children of party members go to study abroad,'' Cambodians say.
In Phnom Penh, complaints are also made about how the draft is used against anyone who speaks out against the government. One doctor, for instance, criticized his hospital's management and soon found himself heading for the front.
Unconfirmed rumors also persist that the government will soon start to draft men between the ages of 30 and 45.
But the government's biggest problem is providing extra goods and cash promised to families of draftees. Special rations often go to only the poorest families and, at best, usually amount to four to five months of a normal family income.
Khem says she received only a little rice for giving up four sons.