Cambodia’s Defense Policy: The Defense Reform Program
By Veasna Var & Sovinda Po

Cambodia’s Defense Policy: The Defense Reform Program

Mar. 31, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Cambodia has recently recovered from decades of civil conflict, and remains one of the poorest countries in the region. The current political stability and peace in Cambodia has provided great opportunities for the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to focus on national reconstruction and economic development. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) is currently at a major crossroads with respect to reforming its forces which contributes to the government’s grand strategy called the “Rectangular Strategy”.1

This strategy lists reform of the RCAF as one of the outcomes needed to achieve national strategic objectives. It states that the RGC is strongly committed to military reform with the goal of rebuilding the armed forces to an appropriate size and quality to be able to defend the country in wartime and peacetime.2 Although the RCAF has achieved its missions considerably satisfactorily, it faces significant challenges with respect to its reform program.

This paper will evaluate the RCAF’s defense policy and strategy and its role in the achievement of Cambodia’s national strategic objectives. The paper first traces the RCAF’s evolution from independence to the modern era. It then discusses Cambodia’s national security challenges, both traditional and non-traditional. This discussion is followed by an analysis of Cambodia’s strategic guidance and the RCAF’s role and response to meet the government’s strategic objectives. The paper will also examine security trends in the Asia-Pacific region and their implications for Cambodia’s security environment. Finally, the paper will consider some recommendations for Cambodia to develop the RCAF to achieve Cambodia’s national strategic objectives in peace, conflict, and war in the 21st century.

Brief History of the RCAF

The RCAF had its origins in the 1946 French–Khmer Arms Treaty prior to Cambodian independence from France in 1953. This Treaty declared that Cambodia would have its own armed forces. At the time, King Norodom Sihanouk, who ranked as the Highest Commander of the RCAF, claimed that the RCAF was to play a peace-keeping role. The King emphasized that “We do not love war because we have endured it for centuries already.”3 Moreover, the King stated that “history shows us that war has engendered only injustice, cruelty and anarchy in the region. However, we are ready to fight to our last breath to protect our independence and our territorial integrity.”4

The Treaty also declared the RCAF mission as maintaining the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Cambodia, respecting the rule of law, maintaining public order, and maintaining the kingdom’s border integrity.5 From 1954 to March 1970, under the Sangkum Reas Neyum (Popular Socialist Community Regime), which was under the leadership of Sihanouk, the RCAF enjoyed professional development and unity, enabling it to fulfil its duty to effectively protect and maintain the integrity of Cambodia. At that time, Cambodia was referred to as an island of Peace in the Indo-China peninsula/region by the national and international community.6

The Cambodian situation dramatically changed following the bloodless coup on March 18, 1970 during which Sihanouk, Cambodia’s Head of State, was removed by his Defense Minister General Lon Nol.7 Cambodia had not only suffered from the spillover effects of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, during which massive US bombing was conducted on Cambodian territory, but Cambodia had also endured devastating civil conflict — mainly during the destructive and totalitarian Khmer Rouge Regime under Pol Pot from 1975 to early 1979, during which about one million people were killed. For more than three decades of civil conflict, the RCAF has endured many bitter experiences and hard times in developing its professionalism, as it was divided into different groups with different political ideologies, military doctrine, and equipment, and was used variously as a political instrument by its embroiled political leadership.8

The Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 brought new hope to the Cambodian people following almost forty years of suffering. A democratically elected government was established following UN-supported elections in 1993. A Cambodian Constitution was then promulgated which clearly articulated Cambodia’s aspiration to become an independent, neutral, and liberal democratic state.9 The RCAF was also made into a unified national armed force by integrating all three military factions except for the Khmer Rouge force.

The three Cambodian military factions which complied with UN requirements were integrated into a unified national force; they included the Cambodian People’s Armed Forces (CPAF), the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF), and the National Army of Independent Kampuchea (NAIK). The Khmer Rouge army faction was named the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK) and it boycotted the peace process and continued fighting against the government along the Cambodian-Thai border. Among the four Cambodian military factions, the CPAF was the largest armed force with over 100,000 effective regular soldiers and militia, and it belonged to the State of Cambodia (SOC).10

The integration of all the Cambodian military factions resulted in a total personnel number of around 203,821.11 This force strength was assessed as being too large, considering the size of the Cambodian population. Therefore, a military reform program was initiated by the UN to contribute to poverty reduction by transferring some of the defense budget to other needed social services such as health and education, and to reduce the size of the RCAF in line with available resources. Cambodia faced significant challenges as the Khmer Rouge military forces were still a major threat to the national interest. Therefore, the RCAF’s primary role focused on the internal threat from the Khmer Rouge forces which occupied some areas of Cambodian territory especially the area along the Cambodian-Thai border, and which continued to wage guerrilla warfare against the ruling coalition government.12

The coalition government broke down as second Prime Minister Hun Sen and his counterpart Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh used their forces against each other to seize power in 1997, which led to international pressure and the withholding of foreign aid.13 As a result, the military reform program ceased. The government’s status was restored after Hun Sen allowed Prince Ranariddh to return and held new parliamentary elections in July 1998, as a result of international coordination and pressure.

The defense policy of the RGC has changed dramatically after the complete demise of the Khmer Rouge administrative and military organization in 1998, as peace prevailed throughout the country. The RGC’s defense policy declared that there was no indication of external military threats to the Kingdom of Cambodia in the present time and in the short- to medium-term future.14 Consequently, Cambodia began reducing its large standing force. However, the consequence of rising tensions with Thailand on their maritime and land border issues led to Cambodia stalling its demobilization program in 2008. There was an increased emphasis on the defense of borders by improving military capability to meet the security threat primarily from Thailand. These events were a significant challenge to the RGC military reform program. Efforts to reform the RCAF faced significant challenges before success could be achieved. Among the many problems faced by the RCAF were issues that could undermine the reform program, such as the lack of a strategic reform framework, poor reform management, and constraints on budget, human resources, and international cooperation.

Cambodia’s National Security Challenges

Cambodia faces a wide range of immense strategic challenges. Cambodia’s main security issue, traditional security, are the geographic challenges to its national security and development. As stated earlier, land and maritime territorial disputes with the neighboring states of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand are the obvious and long standing security challenges in Cambodia’s strategic environment. While border disputes with Vietnam and Laos are being resolved through improved bilateral arrangements, the recent border clashes with Thailand are much more hazardous to Cambodia’s national security.

Recently, the dispute has become particularly dangerous as both sides have used military means to settle their dispute. This situation is made worse by the maritime dispute known as the Overlapping Claims Areas (OCA) between Cambodia and Thailand following the discovery of oil and gas in the Gulf of Thailand. In 2009, Thailand unilaterally revoked the 2001 MOU regarding the area of their OCA to the Continental Shelf as a result of its frustration with the failure to resolve the land border dispute. Cambodia remains highly optimistic that offshore natural resources may significantly boost its economy by as much as USD 1.7 billion per year by 2021.15 Therefore, this important security issue will determine Cambodia’s future access to offshore resources.

Cambodia also faces several transnational security challenges. Cambodia shares borders with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and has limited resources to adequately monitor its overland crossings, maritime security, and coastlines. As a result, Cambodia’s most significant challenge can be observed along its porous border towns and waterways. Potential pandemics, terrorist threats, and illicit activities such as the trafficking of drugs, small arms and people, are grave concerns for the Cambodian government as people and goods continue to move easily across mainland Southeast Asia.16

As for terrorism, although Cambodia is not threatened by significant organized domestic terrorist groups currently operating in the country, the government is nevertheless cautious about the regional threat and has classified terrorism as one of its top transnational security concerns. Cambodia may be used as a “safe haven” by terrorist groups in the Southeast Asian region such as Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).17

RGC’s Strategic Direction and RCAF’s Response

Cambodia’s national defense policy and objectives are based on three main strategic factors: the RGC’s political agenda, assessments of threats to national security, and the state’s Constitution. The RGC’s strategic interests and objectives have focused on international security, social order, national reconstruction, and international cooperation.18 As Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the region, its primary national interest is economic development and reducing poverty.19 Cambodia’s capacity to address its main challenge of achieving its poverty reduction target will be impossible without assistance from the international community.

As a result, one of the pillars of Cambodia’s “Rectangular Strategy” is to integrate Cambodia into the regional and international communities.20 To achieve its goal, the RGC has embarked upon reforms in many fields of government, including military reform as one of the key fields of reform for the RGC. The Prime Minister has firmly committed to the necessity of reform by stating that “reform is a matter of life and death for Cambodia.”21

The RCAF has played a significant role in achieving Cambodia’s national security concerns and national interests. The RGC’s defense policy changed dramatically after the demise of the Khmer Rouge administrative and military organization in 1998, as peace prevailed throughout the country. The RCAF’s primary role was swiftly re-oriented from an inward-looking to an outward-looking policy. Emphasized in the Cambodian National Defense White Paper 2006, there are four basic roles of the RCAF: to defend the nation and its strategic interests; to contribute to national development; to maintain peace, stability, and social order; and to participate in international cooperation.22 All of these roles will remain relevant as part of the national effort to promote stability and achieve strategic objectives.

The Defense Reform Program and its Implications

Since 1993, military reform in Cambodia has been driven by the complete end of civil war. Moreover, the integration of all factions into a unified Cambodian military, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), gave it a considerably large strength of around 203,821. Under the UN transitional administration, only 36,000 soldiers out of the planned 150,000 were demobilized. Another objective for the reform of the military has been to lower military spending, as well as to transfer the savings from demobilization to the development of priority sectors such as health, education, and rural development.

In 2000, the RGC recognized the end of the civil war by releasing its first-ever Cambodian defense strategy document, the Defense White Paper (DWP) titled Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia 2000: Security and Development. The DWP advocates a significantly smaller and more effective military force in the future. To achieve this reform, the DWP calls for the demobilization of 55,000 troops from a total force of 160,000, and a restructuring of the defense organization. The government planned to downsize the RCAF from over 20 divisions to 12 brigades. It also aimed at training more young officers mainly abroad, and establishing more military bases and barracks.

A consequence of the rising tensions with Thailand since 2008 has meant that the RGC has stalled the downsizing program. The “deep reform” program has refocused on the priority of border defense including maritime and land borders. Strategic roads, bases, communications facilities, and villages have been built along the border. The RGC has purchased new military equipment for the purpose of national defense. Military training exercises have been actively conducted at all levels. At the same time, more soldiers have been recruited.

Before the 2008 Thai invasion of the territory surrounding the Preah Vihear temple — despite border issues being longstanding issues — Cambodia had never thought that it would be subjected to a physical threat from an immediate neighbor. The greatest security concern for Cambodia had been transnational security challenges along its borders. However, the 2008 border clashes with Thailand were a wakeup call for the Cambodian government and its armed forces to reconsider its defense capability. While border disputes, threats from transnational criminals and international terrorism have recently become major concerns, the RCAF has strengthened its defense capability to protect its borders, especially through the sustainable presence of the RCAF at all strategically important points. Designating the RCAF as a border protection force has been intended not only for the protection of the nation against any external intrusion into Cambodian territory, but also to maintain peace and stability with neighboring countries. This has remained the top foreign policy priority of the government.23

Cambodia’s protracted border dispute with Thailand since 2008 has had a significant impact on its strategic circumstances. The defense sector has now been prioritized following the border clash with Thailand over the small piece of land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple. The dispute on the overlapping maritime border with Thailand, which is rich in oil and gas reserves, is also seen as a driving factor for prioritizing Cambodia’s defense sector. The RGC has dramatically changed its military reform focus beyond the current downsizing program of its large forces to a “deep” military reform aiming at modernizing its military capability.

The RGC has made defense of its borders a priority and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th military regional commands are charged with the task. Since late 2008, a hundred buildings for military headquarters and military barracks have been built. The defense communication system has been improved. Thousands of houses have been built along the Cambodian-Thai border for soldiers’ families. Military strategic routes along the border have been constructed. Military training and exercises have been conducted nationwide including sending hundreds of troops to be trained abroad. Field exercises and live-fire weapons training which were almost non-existent, have been actively conducted. For example, in early 2010, hundreds of BM-21 multiple rocket launchers have been fired as part of military training exercises.

Recently, the RGC has purchased new military equipment such as almost one hundred of the new Eastern European-made tanks, combat vehicles, and Armored Personnel Carriers (APC),24 and most recently the government purchased a number of Chinese-built Zhi-9 utility helicopters.25 More soldiers have been recruited. The RGC has increased its naval capability by increasing the size of the navy and purchasing more equipment in order to protect Cambodian maritime interests. As for security institutional building, the RGC has established counter terrorism and maritime security to protect Cambodia’s national interests. Cambodia’s defense spending has increased considerably. The national budget increased 17 percent to USD 2.4 billion of which USD 300 million is allocated for national defense sector.26 This is compared with the 2010 budget which was USD 1.97 billion, of which USD 276 million was allocated for defense spending.27

This is the first of a two-part paper. The second part can be found here.


1. Rectangular strategy for growth, employment, equity and efficiency phase II is the “Socio Economic Policy Agenda” of the Royal Government of Cambodia of the fourth legislature of the national assembly. It was announced by the Prime Minister at the Office of the Council of Ministers, Phnom Penh on 26 September 2008. The rectangular strategy phase II maintains the earlier structure and fine-tunes and sharpens the prioritized policies of the rectangular strategy in its first phase.

2. Royal Government of Cambodia. (2009). National Strategic Development Plan 2009-2013. Phnom Penh: The Prime Minister Office, pp. 18-19.

3. Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. (2000). Brief History of RCAF [in Khmer]. Phnom Penh: Information and Propaganda Department, p. 2.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Kingsbury, D. (2005). South-East Asia: A Political Profile. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 207. The Lon Nol coup can be seen as supportive of US strategy in the region — it was widely believed to be strongly backed by the CIA and received immediate US support.

8. Cambodian Ministry of National Defense. (2000). Defense White Paper: Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia: Security and Development. Phnom Penh: Royal Government of Cambodia, pp. 1-8.

9. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia 1993, p. 3.

10. FitzGerald, D. (1996). The Cambodian military factions and their role in the election. In Selochan, V. and Thayer, C. A. (eds.), Bringing Democracy to Cambodia. Canberra: Australian Defence Studies Centre, pp. 73-88.

11. International Crisis Group. (2000). Cambodia: The elusive peace dividend. ICG Asia Report, p. 8.

12. An, S. (2010). Conflict resolution in Cambodia. Cambodia Institute Cooperation and Peace Working Paper no. 35, p. 7.

13. Lum, T. (2009). Cambodia: Background and U.S. Relations. Washington DC: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, p. 3.

14. Cambodian Ministry of National Defence. (2006). Defence White Paper, Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia: Security, Development and International Cooperation. Phnom Penh: Royal Government of Cambodia, p. 23.

15. International Monetary Fund. (2007). Cambodia: Selected issues and statistical appendix. IMF Country Report.

16. Ear, J. H. S. (2010). Cambodia’s transitional security challenges. In Issues for Engagement: Asian Perspective on Transitional Security Challenges. Honolulu, HI: APCSS, p. 67.

17. Ibid.

18. National Strategic Development Plan 2009-2013, p. 1.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Address by the Cambodian Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia on “Rectangular Strategy” for Growth, Employment, Equity and Efficiency Phase II at the First Cabinet Meeting of the Fourth Legislature of the National Assembly at the Office of the Council of Ministers, Phnom Penh, September 26, 2008.

22. Ministry of National Defense. (2006). Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia: Security, Development and International Development. Cambodia Defense White Paper 2006, p. 40.

23. National Strategic Development Plan 2009-2013, p. 20.

24. Cambodia boosts army with new tanks, APCs. (September 16, 2010). Retrieved from

25. China to lend Cambodia $195 mln to buy its helicopters. (August 22, 2011). Reuters. Retrieved from

26. Cambodia to raise military pay under higher 2011 budget. (October 18, 2010). Voice of America. Retrieved from

27. Ibid.

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