Cambodia is finally poised to end its civil war nearly a decade after signing the Paris peace accords. Its induction into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last month, the capture of Khmer Rouge guerrilla leader Ta Mok, and a new coalition between political rivals Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh offer the possibility of a peace long overdue.
But to aid Cambodia in reaching that goal, the United States must move beyond its singular focus on bringing Khmer Rouge war criminals to trial.
To prevent future war crimes, US policy must address the broader task of dismantling the scaffolding of civil conflict: a war-size military deeply split along political lines, which continues to present a major obstacle to Cambodia's economic and social recovery from three decades of internal violence.
In Cambodia, a country of fewer than 10 million, the armed forces exceed 200,000 individuals. That is four times as many soldiers per capita as in the US and roughly six times the average in the developing world. Cambodia clearly cannot afford such a large force. Although it devotes 30 percent of its budget to the military (twice the US fraction), it cannot pay its soldiers.
Moreover, the military is split into factions that could worsen as it attempts to integrate Khmer Rouge officers and foot soldiers into its ranks. Under these conditions, every political contest has the likelihood of widespread political violence. An early start on building a more neutral military is imperative if local elections later this year, which could help break authoritarian patterns at the grass-roots level, are to succeed.
Successful military reform inevitably will loosen Hun Sen's own political hold, because he has relied on internal security forces to maintain supremacy for his Cambodian People's Party (CPP). However, it will strengthen his credibility in the international community, and foreign donors must make clear to him that continued support depends in part upon a brisk demobilization process. If the national forces are not depoliticized, and the ganglia of local military loyal to the CPP is not abolished, political violence will continue in Cambodia in perpetuity.
On paper, the Cambodian government has made a commitment to military reform. Hun Sen stepped down as military commander in chief in January, and the government announced its intention to reduce the size of the armed forces and police to 80,000 troops over five years. The World Bank has agreed to fund part of the plan beginning in January. But while the bank will provide most of the funding for the mechanics of demobilization, it will not be sufficient to accomplish the task. The international community must press for an immediate start to military reform, aiming for an improved political climate for local elections. It must also give early attention to the reconfigured force that will emerge from this process.
The Western nations should stress the principles of democratic civil-military relations in any military reforms. Last month the Cambodian co-ministers of defense visited Beijing to seek counsel and support for demobilization. A plan heavily influenced by China could lean too far in the direction of the Leninist model of a seamless relationship between the dominant party and the armed forces.
Washington is prohibited by US law from providing funds directly to the Cambodian government. However, the US can boost the civilian side of demobilization in Cambodia by providing support, through nongovernmental organizations, for job training for demobilized soldiers, and for civil-military dialogues. It can also sponsor training programs on human rights and the role of a professional force through the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), which is not specifically forbidden by Congress.
The administration can expect some resistance from the US policy community to greater intercourse with the Cambodian government due to discontent over irregularities in the 1998 elections, and continued uneasiness over Hun Sen's political dominance. Yet a policy that compels the government to establish a professional peacetime military is one that will improve Cambodia's political life, stimulate its economy, and offer long-delayed social stability.
*Catharin Dalpino is a visiting fellow and Michael O'Hanlon is a fellow at The Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C.