|Country Report Cambodia - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 72 p.)|
|Breakdown of limits|
The character and background of combatants - their training, maturity and experience - are critical predictors of their behaviour during wartime. It is impossible, of course, to guarantee that a well-trained, well-disciplined professional army will heed the rules of war that protect civilians. In the heat of battle, as the ICRC consultation in war zones around the world demonstrates, even the most skilled practitioners of war can lose control of a situation. War promises safety for no one.
The odds of civilian casualties, however, are vastly increased when young, untrained and impressionable soldiers and fighters are pressed into service. They are much more likely to follow the orders of their commanders, no matter how many lives may be lost. Lacking even the most basic knowledge of the rules of war, they roam the countryside like packs of human landmines - armed to the teeth and indiscriminate in their choice of target. With such forces in the field, the potential for attacks on civilians, whether intentional or not, increases dramatically. Such, sadly, has been the case in Cambodia for decades.
Yet, no matter the era or the type of armed force under discussion, Cambodia has been home to combatants who share a reputation for disorder and brutality. These forces have included regular government troops, guerrilla fighters, militia members and commandos. Acting separately, but considered as a whole, these soldiers and fighters have exacerbated an already tenuous situation and put tens of thousands of civilians into deeper danger as the conflicts have dragged on. A foreign military adviser put it simply: ...there are a core of people [civilians] who just want to be left alone... [but that] becomes difficult when every fourth person carries a weapon. (IDI, foreign military expert, Phnom Penh)
The roots of the troubles can be traced to the 1970-1975 civil war, when government commanders descended on villages across Cambodia to conscript unsuspecting young men. Khmer Rouge commanders competed for the conscripts and by the time they marched into Phnom Penh to take power in 1975, they had developed manipulation of armed young men into an art. Memories of the Pol Pot era are studded with stories of children barely big enough to hold a rifle off the ground.
Those who used violence were the young soldiers. They did not understand about life. They were in the armies of Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge. They cut off the heads of the enemy. They had no feelings, no conscience. None at all. (IDI, government official, Phnom Penh)
There were children who [were] obliged to join the army when they did not know how to judge what is wrong or right... This is the role of the commander: to try to find many forces in order to scare the enemy. So they just conscript the children... (IDI, Buddhist monk, Phnom Penh)
During Pol Pots time the gun they carried touched the ground. They know nothing. If they are told to shoot they just shoot. (FG, RCAF members, Kompong Som)
The problem of child soldiers has declined in the 1990s, a trend that began with the arrival of the UN peacekeepers and was dramatically hastened by the mass surrender of Khmer Rouge fighters that began in 1996. 31 But the harsh memories of the Pol Pot era are sharply reflected in current Cambodian opinion. In the survey, only 4 per cent of respondents say that a child younger than 18 is mature enough to take up arms. Seventy-seven per cent say that soldiers and fighters must be at least 18-21 years old, and 19 per cent say combatants should be over 21.
31 Commanders in the RCAF are still said to use ghost soldiers in order to meet unit quotas and attract supplies that can be traded on the black market. (IDI, government official, Phnom Penh; IDI, foreign military expert, Phnom Penh)
In focus groups and in-depth interviews, participants say those
under 18 were hot tempered and thin-blooded (impetuous),
but that soldiers needed to be thoughtful, stable and
have good judgement. 32 Participants also offered
explanations for why commanders would want raw, untested recruits in their
32 FG, female market stall vendors, Phnom Penh; FG, female returnees, Malai; IDI, deminer, Phnom Penh; FG, female urban youth, Phnom Penh; FG, female single heads of household, Phnom Penh.
The [young soldiers] are brave... they have no judgement. They dont know about the soldiers laws, and they dont know what is death. (IDI, newspaper reporter, Phnom Penh)
The younger soldiers [are], the worse tempered they are...
The mature one is thoughtful. The 17- and 18-year-old soldiers could even kill their parents when they are ordered to, and they are bad tempered, especially when they have guns in their hands.
(FG, female market stall vendors, Phnom Penh)
It is... easy for the commanders to give orders [to young soldiers], because the children did not have a conscience and are illiterate.
[Why do you think the commanders use these very young soldiers or fighters?] They have enough strength for fighting; they dont have much education or training in human rights. They do not know what is good, what is bad. So they will simply follow the orders the commanders give them. (IDI, male university student, Phnom Penh)
...[young soldiers are] easy to use and [they] follow orders. They are not able to judge correctly. They will do what they are told to do. They dont [know] what is right and what is wrong. (IDI, monk in training, Phnom Penh)
It is easy to use [young people] for fighting. If they [soldiers] are educated, they will not go to fight because they are afraid of dying. (IDI, male mine victim, Battambang)
Dont know [why we were fighting]. It was their policy. They [the government] asked us to fight, [so] we fought. They asked us to join the armies, [so] we joined. (FG, male rural youth, Battambang)
To this day, rank-and-file Cambodian soldiers are said to be disproportionately young, rural, poor and uneducated. 33 They really are just civilians, a long-time observer of Cambodian combatants and conflicts explained. A soldier here [in Cambodia] is a guy whos been recruited or conscripted, usually conscripted, during war... In a lot of cases he is taken from the village because the village... couldnt pay for him not to be taken... anyone who can pay is not in the army. (IDI, foreign military expert, Phnom Penh)
33 The survey provides insufficient evidence on these questions because combatants were not separated according to the force they fought with or their rank.
In addition to suffering from the ignorance of youth, the vast majority of Cambodian combatants have never received formal or systematic military training, let alone schooling in the rules of war. Combatants learn their trade in the jungle and the streets - a fact that has had enormous consequences for the shape of conflict in Cambodia.
We were all guerrillas, we didnt know human rights law, we didnt go to school, we didnt know how many articles in the law, we only learned how to shoot and kill...
The soldiers, at that time, didnt understand about the international law yet... didnt understand about the law of war, or any law. We didnt learn the laws of war.
(FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)
They [Khmer Rouge troops] cannot read. They cannot write. If the commander leads them, they will do good. If not, they wont. (IDI, RCAF general, Phnom Penh)
These observations go a long way towards explaining why so many Cambodians bend over backwards to absolve regular soldiers and fighters of the lethal consequences of their actions. Disparate voices across Cambodia - of those who carried weapons and those who watched the battle; those who ran for their lives and the lucky few who stayed clear of the fray - reach a similar conclusion: blame the commanders. The combatants were only following orders.
Not all commanders think the same. Some are crazy, some are polite. (IDI, RCAF general, Phnom Penh)
If we were ordered to attack an army camp in which people were also there, we had to fight.
If people were wounded, we helped care for them.
...soldiers must follow their orders, although we dont want to harm anybody...
We were under the dictatorial leadership, we had to follow them in order to survive...
Because the soldiers had to fight for the target area, we aimed at the enemy side, and there was no order for not attacking the civilians.
...we had to achieve the plan of our leader.
(FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)
If they [soldiers] want to do anything they need to have orders from their commanders. (IDI, rural male high school student, Kompong Speu)
It is really up to the officers in war to decide what is allowed or not. It is this [their attitude] that sets limits... depend[s] on the captain, the commander. If he has a sense of morality... Do you understand? Soldiers will follow the spirit of their commander. If he has a humanistic spirit, the soldiers will have limits set on the destruction, on what they can fire upon. (IDI, government official, Phnom Penh)
We cannot say good soldier or bad soldier. Any soldier in the battlefield, they had to listen, they had to obey their commanders... I am not a soldier, but I think if I was... I would kill any people according to the order of my commander. (IDI, journalist, Phnom Penh)
Sometimes I interview the soldiers - Khmer Rouge soldiers and State of Cambodia soldiers. I ask them, Why [are] you fighting?... the Khmer Rouge say, I fight the Vietnamese because my commander says that the Vietnamese come to Cambodia. And when  see the State of Cambodia [soldiers], I ask, Why [do] you kill the Khmer Rouge?... [They say] My commander says the Khmer Rouge are the bad guys, so I have to fight... I think most of the soldiers, nearly all, [are] the simple soldiers... [who] dont know anything about war... what they have done they have done according to their commanders. (IDI, journalist, Phnom Penh)
The extent of this sentiment is perhaps best measured by the comments of a former refugee who has been resettled in Cambodias north-west. Asked about the treatment of prisoners of war, she responded to a fellow villager who had flatly said that Khmer prisoners were released while the Vietnamese were killed. Sometimes we also released the Vietnamese by allowing them to go abroad, she countered. They were forced to fight by their commander. (FG, female returnees, Malai)