Sunday, November 29, 2015

Military Generals in Cambodia

There are well over 1200 generals in the Cambodian military, not counting the ones on the police forces. There is no accurate number how large the military and police forces are; estimates  say about 150,000 for the military and possibly 100,000 for the police, of which about 7,000 to 10,000 are military police. The police comprises gendarmerie, municipal, military, traffic, and immigration police, and basically all branches must be considered para-military.

In comparison the U. S. military is about 1.4 million on active duty and there are about 500 generals and around 216 admirals. The police in the U. S.  is a local matter,except the FBI, and cannot be used in comparison, inasmuch as the U.S. population currently stands at 320 million whereas Cambodia has a ‘paltry’ 15 million.

The contrast between these numbers is striking. Why would a nation as small as Cambodia need so many generals, some might even ask why it needs such a relatively large military to begin with. Cambodia does not have any real enemies from whom it would have to defend itself. Both Thailand and Vietnam are much stronger militarily and could defeat Cambodia in a heartbeat if ever came to a serious conflict. That, however, is highly unlikely as no country would have anything to gain by waging war on one another besides dead soldiers and an immense cost that especially Cambodia could ill afford. Additionally, Vietnam is a close ally, and Thailand, depending on the government in power, is either a friend, or an adversary in historical questions, such as Preah Vihear. There is some antagonism among the populations of all three countries but that certainly would and will not lead to an armed conflict in this day and age. The skirmishes with Thailand a few years ago about Preah Vihear was more for show and muscle flexing on the part of some firebrands than for anything else. Unfortunately and sadly, this unreasonable and fanatical thinking cost lives on both sides.

The benefit of such a large military/police force is the jobs this provides for people in a poor country. It is a well-known axiom that young, poor men without any great prospects in poor countries join the military. The get free housing, food, and a lot of free time. The military could also be deployed in other areas, most notably in natural disasters. Many soldiers moonlight as guards in factories, plantations, etc., using their free time to supplement their incomes.

By all appearances, and the PM underscored this in a recent speech, the military serves a more domestic purpose. It is the backbone that supports the ruling party. Many of those generals aren’t really soldiers; they didn’t get their rank because of merit but out of gratitude for their support of the ruling party and by extension the PM. They use their position in the business community to influence deals that would greatly benefit their wives’ businesses. It has been a running joke that all high officials have wives that are very successful in business. This is why they have become so wealthy they otherwise could not have become on their meager salaries. The PM said the high ranking generals would not stand for it if the opposition party would retire them. In other words, this would provoke a Thai solution, meaning a military coup. These people have too much to lose to be shunted aside by a new reform-minded government. There are also too many loyal officers and soldiers feeding from the same trough.  That statement made it abundantly clear what the real role of the military in Cambodia is.

Another possible explanation for the high number of generals is that most officials in ministries, e. g. state secretaries also hold a military rank. In other countries you would have all kinds of under secretaries,  assistant secretaries, and assistant under secretaries or directors, etc., in the civil service.  Those positions are usually held by generals in many ministries, particularly the Defense, and the Interior Ministries. Even the PM and the President of the Assembly hold the rank of general. They created a five-star rank especially for them. The late Chea Sim, the President of the Cambodia People’s Party, also held that rank.

Another baffling thing is that there are seemingly hardly any common soldiers or NCOs  (sergeants) visible in public. You only see officers denoted by at least one stripe on their shoulder sleeves. This also applies to the various police branches with the exception of the traffic police.

Still, statistically there is one general for every 110 soldiers. That function is usually performed by a captain in most of the Western militaries. So it does appear as though favoritism and power considerations play a large role.

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