|Written by Brendan Brady and Thet Sambath|
|TUESDAY, 30 SEPTEMBER 2008|
The recent border standoff over Preah Vihear temple threw a spotlight on RCAF by beaming around the world images of flip-flop-wearing Cambodian soldiers with rusty guns
WITH coverage of the Preah Vihear dispute beaming images of soldiers with rusted AK-47s and rubber-band-bound grenades worldwide, questions are being raised about just how prepared the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) would be if called upon to fight.
Tanks T-55 tanks and PT-79 light amphibious tanks from Russia, Type 50 tanks and Type 62/63 light tanks from China, and AMX-13 light tanks from France. Aircraft No fighters, no ground attack aircraft, a few former Eastern block transport helicopters, around a dozen MI-17s and MI-8 planes. Light arms Howitzers from Russia and the US, shoulder-fired SAM-7 rockets. Lacks medium and long range offensive support weapons (artillery).
"[RCAF is] woefully unprepared [and] poorly equipped across the board," one military analyst, who declined to be named as he still works with RCAF, told the Post.
No recent figures were available, but a 2002 report put defence spending at more than half of the national budget.
Yet most of RCAF's equipment is outdated kit left over from the Cold War. Soldiers are poorly trained, and discipline is low, with many troops simply refusing to show up for duty.
Analysts say the country needs a well-equiped and organised military to protect national sovereignty and participate in peacekeeping.
"We want to develop and modernise as a state, and defence is part of that," said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. "But [our military will develop] with an orientation towards ... peacekeeping work since we have an obligation to help others achieve peace."
Cleaning off the rust
Cambodia's military leadership claims the battlehardy RCAF troops more than make up for their rusting weaponry.
"Don't worry about their weapons, the Cambodian soldiers' strength is their experience as they've been in wars for decades," said Dien Den, a former military general who served under Lon Nol from 1970 to 1975.
But observers wonder how much of these proclamations on the prowess of Cambodian troops is hot air to compensate for poor organisation and low morale.
Due to the imminent possiblilty of combat, soldiers have only now started turning up to work, said Uth Sakada, a military engineer officer based along the border with Thailand in Battambang.
Before the border standoff emerged in July, "less than a third of us were at our base at any given time". Now, the base's personnel are all present, on permanent standby, he said.
Moreover, things that should be routine - such as cleaning weapons - have only been carried out after the Preah Vihear skirmish broke out, said Ros Bun Hem, an artillery commander also stationed in Battambang.
The border standoff has focused attention on the condition of weapons, he said, with soldiers now prepping their instruments "to make sure they would fire well".
DON'T WORRY ABOUT THEIR WEAPONS, CAMBODIAN SOLDIERS’ STRENGTH IS THEIR EXPERIENCE AS THEY’VE BEEN IN WARS FOR DECADES.
How well equipped?
RCAF is not short of manpower or light arms but as the military analyst said, "small arms are small arms".
Up-to-date estimates of RCAF troop figures were not available but the government in 2001 estimated it has some 140,000 soldiers.
"It would be in the area of offensive support weapons (artillery) and air support that the Thais would completely outclass RCAF," he said.
The air force's "fleet" stationed in the capital amounts to about a dozen Russian-made MIGs whose flat tyres and dented panels can be seen when landing at the commercial airport.
It might also have several planes at air bases in Battambang and Sisophon.
But things may be changing. According to a high-ranking military official based in Phnom Penh who declined to be named, Cambodia will receive shortly a shipment of "modern fighter planes".
He would not specify the number or type of planes, or where they were coming from. "We currently have peace but when our country faces a threat, new and modern aircraft fighters are needed for national defense," he said.
Another senior army official based in the capital claimed a large shipment of "modern equipment" - including guns and artillery - would be received at the end of October.
"We are not competing with other countries for weapons, but without them we could become a victim," he said.
The bulk of Cambodia's current military stocks come from China and Russia, with a few also coming from the United States and France.
An estimated several hundred post-WWII-issue tanks compose Cambodia's limited ground arsenal, of which only about half are believed to be functional.
Cambodia's artillery is compromises an array of old howitzers from Russia and the US, while shoulder-fired SAM-7 rockets are its most formidable anti-aircraft defence. And the handful of serviceable helicopters from France are only enough for shuttling around generals.
Just 15 years ago the beneficiary of what was at the time the UN's largest peace keeping commission, Cambodia has begun to offer limited military services abroad, providing deminers in peacekeeping missions in Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. "[We] are especially pleased to see them participating in peacekeeping missions when just a few short years ago they were beneficiaries of such forces," said US embassy spokesman John Johnson.
China has stepped up its military assistance to Cambodia in recent years, most notably providing the Kingdom's nearly non-existent navy with five warships in 2005 and nine patrol boats in November 2007.
The development has increased questions about how superpowers will compete for influence.
Just earlier this month, the US treated Cambodian government and military officials to a rare tour of one of its aircraft carriers when it sailed through the region on its way home from Iraq.
The first tour by Cambodian officials of a US aircraft carrier, the Cambodian officials were dazzled by what they had seen previously only on television. The US embassy called the junket "another step in the growing military-to-military relationship" between the two countries.
While Western countries, notably Australia, have expanded aid to Cambodian law enforcement for combating the trafficking of people and narcotics as well as for monitoring potential terrorist activity, they have been hesitant to supply lethal materiel. Last year the US lifted a ban on military aid to Cambodia, but has only provided non-lethal assistance.
Asked about the future of military-to-military ties between the US and Cambodia during his visit earlier this month to Phnom Penh, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte mentioned only non-combat related cooperation.
Even if boosted by a couple new shipments of materiel, what CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yeap described as "the many guerrilla strategies of Cambodia's troops who have fought in many battles" may be insufficient to compensate for poor resources.
"These are modern times, most countries use computers and advanced systems," said SRP parliamentarian and former chairman of the National Assembly's defense committee Yim Sovann, who said corruption over military spending plagued an already rag-tag group.
"Yes, Cambodian troops have experience, but without resources, without salaries they can survive on, they can't do much. This is not an army for modern times."
A young Cambodian couple smile for David Kim, the South Korean photographer, as he takes their wedding pictures.
Last November Mr Kim moved with his wife to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, using the proceeds from the sale of his photo shop in Seoul to open Luk Studio. The business has made “a really good start” as more and more Cambodians turn to professionals to capture their union, he says.
Although his business is still in its infancy, Mr Kim has already hired three people to help manage bookings and photo shoots.
“I had my company in Korea for three years, but demand wasn’t growing any more and there was simply too much competition,” says the 32-year-old. “I can already say that I am the number one here because nobody was really offering this [service] professionally.”
Mr Kim is making a grassroots contribution to a much more substantial flow of South Korean money and expertise entering Cambodia.
Last year South Korean investments there grew fivefold, making Cambodia the second-biggest recipient of Korean investment after China, according to the Korean International Trade Association. South Korea briefly overtook China two years ago as the biggest source of foreign direct investment, accounting for 23 per cent of projects approved by Cambodian authorities that year. Although China regained its leadership, several large-scale Korean projects are in the pipeline, in sectors including construction and finance.
Observers find it hard to explain exactly why Koreans have zoomed in on a country that is not particularly close to them, either geographically or culturally. “A lot of Korean businessmen are looking to invest abroad and somehow Cambodia seems to be now better known, particularly among small and medium-sized businesses, than other countries,” says Anh Ho-young, South Korean deputy trade minister.
One suggestion is that the historic disconnect between the countries has helped. Decades of war have fuelled a profound distrust in Cambodia of its neighbours.
Also, “Koreans are Asia’s most adventurous frontier market investors right now”, says Douglas Clayton, who has been investing in south-east Asia for two decades and manages Leopard Capital, a Cambodian fund.
“They understand how Korea itself was rapidly developed from a frontier market into a developed society and see the possibilities to repeat that process in transitional economies like Cambodia.
“For historical reasons, Koreans are not eager to place all their bets on China, so they are interested in alternative low-cost production centres,” he adds.
The most visible sign of South Korean investment in Cambodia is the redrawing of Phnom Penh’s skyline. Two Korean construction companies are erecting skyscrapers that will be the city’s tallest buildings.
Meanwhile, a joint venture between Korean and Cambodian companies is developing a satellite city, appropriately named Camko City. The $2bn (€1.4bn, £1bn) project is financed by Shinhan, a Korean bank, and is also due to house Cambodia’s future bourse – again with financial as well as training assistance from the Korean stock exchange.
In the six years since he arrived in Cambodia, Won Jong-min estimates the Korean community has grown from less than 500 to about 10,000. He settled there “not because of business but because I fell in love with the beautiful nature” around the temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s cultural treasure.
Mr Won has since founded K-Channel, a Korean-language broadcaster that is expanding rapidly and is expected to break even after just two years on the air.
His success owes much to the fact that Koreans remain close-knit and rarely learn Khmer, even though many marry Cambodians or form property partnerships with locals to circumvent restrictions on foreign land ownership.
“Demand for more Korean [TV] content and entertainment is very strong,” says Mr Won.
Some pundits date the flourishing of business ties between the two countries to a state visit by Roh Moo-hyun, the former South Korean president, in late 2006, accompanied by a cohort of Korean executives.
Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-standing prime minister, has also encouraged an open door policy. Last year, when a Cambodian chartered aircraft crashed on a domestic flight with 13 Koreans among its 22 passengers, he headed the search-and-rescue team, a gesture that did not go unnoticed in Seoul.
“It’s very rare for any prime minister to lead this kind of rescue, and I think it shows just how close this prime minister feels to Korea,” says Mr Anh.