Further evidence, if any were needed, of the malign hold of the military over political commonsense comes from Cambodia, where the national assembly this week voted to introduce conscription.

Cambodia has made a relative success of its transition to democracy since the peace settlement of 1992.

But as a result of years of civil war and the attempt to incorporate rival militias in the national forces, the country already has a huge army – according to Reuters, more than 100,000 strong, or about double the Australian defence force.

One would have thought the last thing Cambodia needs is more soldiers. But as the BBC reports, “Defence Minister Tea Banh told reporters that while Cambodia’s army was numerically strong, many of its soldiers were not fit to serve.”

Another government spokesman “said that a strong military force was necessary so that neighbouring countries would not look down on Cambodia”. Not “invade”, of course, or anything as dramatic as that, just “look down on”.

And for such slight considerations of prestige governments continue to ruin lives and pour money away on the military.

Even if extra troops were really necessary, they shouldn’t be hard to recruit, since Cambodia is plagued by high unemployment. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said the conscription plan was just cover for the government’s failure to find jobs for Cambodia’s youth. “In order to control these young jobless people, they are forcing them to enrol in the army.”

In Australia the opposite problem – a “skills shortage” – has led to some murmuring about the possibility of conscription (as distinct from, say, just paying people more, or not starting so many wars). But the issue is so politically explosive that it’s hard to imagine any government moving that way for a long time.

Largely as a result of the trauma of Vietnam, the scourge of conscription in the English-speaking countries seems to have been laid to rest. Then again, not long ago we would have said the same about torture, so it’s best not to be complacent.

Peter Fray

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