Attrition: Cambodia Cleans Out The Pretenders

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July 30, 2011: The Cambodian Army has been conducting a vigorous recruiting drive recently. The goal is 3,000 fit and intelligent young men. The new recruits are to replace several thousand older soldiers who were recently retired. Like many nations, Cambodia has long used the army as a jobs program. The emphasis was on keeping the 124,000 military personnel employed, not ready for war.

Cambodia found that there were serious shortcomings with this approach when, three years ago, a border dispute with Thailand turned into a military conflict. Nothing major. The action has been mostly assault rifles, machine-guns, artillery and mortars. There have been hundreds of casualties. What shocked Cambodian commanders and political leaders was how unprepared their army was for even a minor conflict like this. This led to a revitalization plan for the army, which the current recruiting drive is part of.

The border war was unexpected, even though Cambodia and Thailand have long argued over who owns how much of an ancient temple site. In 1962, an international court declared the temple Cambodian, but Thailand continued to claim adjacent areas that the Cambodians insist are part of the temple complex.

Currently, each side has about 3,000 troops near the temple site, and there have been a few shooting incidents since 2008, but nothing serious. The two countries have been negotiating the withdrawal of troops. Fighting earlier this year damaged portions of the temple (which Cambodians occupy) and caused over 20,000 local civilians to flee. 

This dispute is but one of many similar ones. The basic problem is that the current 730 kilometer long border was defined in 1907 by the placement of only 73 border markers. This has left the exact location of the border open to interpretation. Occasionally these interpretations clash, as is happening now. Neither side wants a full scale war, even though Thailand has a larger and better equipped military. In the last few years, Cambodia doubled its annual military budget to $500 million. Thailand spends more than six times that, and has done so for decades. Thailand has 300,000 troops, Cambodia only 124,000.

Cambodia is very poor, and has been helped by China. which recently donated 50,000 field uniforms (including hats and boots). Last year, China donated 257 military trucks, and also supplied weapons. The infantry weapons tend to be older models. That's because China is introducing a new and improved model of their QBZ-95 assault rifle (also called the Type 95) to their own troops. The QBZ-95 is a distinctive bullpup design (the magazine is behind the trigger) that China has been issuing to its troops for over a decade now. That means China has plenty of surplus Type 81 (improved AK-47) rifles (which the QBZ-95 replaced) to either put into storage, or distribute to allies. Cambodia has bought some Type 95s, for elite units. But most everyone else has the second hand Type 81. AK-47s have been widely used in Burma for nearly half a century.

Cambodia has never really recovered from its disastrous experiment in communist government (the Khmer Rouge) in the 1970s. That killed off 15 percent of the population (including nearly all the ethnic Chinese community) and trashed the economy. China supported the Khmer Rouge (as fellow communists), but Khmer Rouge aggression against Vietnam resulted in Vietnam invading in 1979 and deposing the Khmer Rouge. But as the decades went by, former Khmer Rouge officials got back in power, and China made nice.

 

 


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