Mainly covers the period June 1998 to April 2001 as well as including some earlier information.

  • Population:
    – total: 10,945,000
    – under-18s: 5,243,000
  • Government armed forces:
    – active: 140,000
    – paramilitary: 67,000
  • Compulsory recruitment age: no conscription
  • Voluntary recruitment age: 18
  • Voting age (government elections): 18
  • Child soldiers: recently indicated but currently unknown in both government and armed opposition forces
  • CRC-OP-CAC: signed on 27 June 2000; supports "straight-18" position
  • Other treaties ratified: GC/API+II; ILO 138
  • During the country's civil war there was widespread use of child soldiers, some as young as eight, by government forces and armed opposition groups. Identification and demobilisation of former child soldiers is underway as part of a broader downsizing of armed forces.


Peace has finally come to Cambodia after almost thirty years of conflict. The last phase of fighting began in June 1997 following a coup against Prince Ranarridh by his co-leader Prime Minister Hun Sen and their respective forces. Elections took place in July 1998 and a new coalition government was formed in December 1998 which included both parties. The armed group, Khmer Rouge, disintegrated in March 1999 following the death of Pol Pot, the defection of key leaders and the arrest of the last Khmer military chief, Ta Mok.


National Recruitment Legislation and Practice

Article 48 of Cambodia's 1993 Constitution states that "the State shall protect the rights of the child as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular, the right to life, education, protection during wartime ..."324 The current legal basis for military recruitment is the 1997 Law on General Statutes for the Military Personnel of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Article 42 of the law states that all those who are recruited into the military should have reached the age of 18 years.325 Recruitment must be done without distinction as to religious belief, national origin or social status, although discrimination against ethnic Vietnamese is endemic in Cambodia.326

The government is currently in the process of downsizing its armed forces. Since 1993, the international donor community has been pressing for the demobilisation of part of the RCAF which has posed a major burden on the national budget. It was not until peace was finally achieved, however, that the government developed a plan for demobilisation known as the Cambodian Veterans Assistance Program (CVAP), to be overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation with international assistance. The demobilisation plan will see the armed forces cut by an initial 31,500 men to around 100,000 over the next three years. A pilot demobilisation of the first 1,500 soldiers was conducted between May and July 2000,327 to be followed by 10,000 each year from 2000 to 2002 arriving at a total of 31,500.

Current Child Recruitment

There appears to be no new recruitment of those under 18, although some children recruited during the civil war may still remain in the armed forces as full demobilisation has not yet taken place. (See Developments section for further details on demobilisation of child soldiers).

Past Child Recruitment

Underage recruitment by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) was widely reported by both NGOs and UN bodies during Cambodia's civil war, and was acknowledged by authorities in Cambodia's initial report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1998.328 One estimate suggested that some 4% of the RCAF were children,329 some as young as 12.330 Hard statistical information on the number of child soldiers used by the armed forces is lacking because child soldiers were often registered under false names and ages. One study carried out between July 1997 and June 1999 found 1,300 child soldiers in one region. More recently UNICEF found 233 child soldiers in two regions, but the actual number is believed to be higher.331

An abundance of anecdotal information point to widespread voluntary child recruitment during the war. A RCAF spokesman in 1997 admitted that the armed forces recruited children in the Samrong area but claimed these children were volunteers from the ranks of defecting Khmer Rouge guerrilla units and were over 14 years old.332 In a workshop organised by the Cambodian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) in partnership with World Vision in August 1999, 15 soldiers, aged between 16 and 20, who attended claimed to be volunteers.333

Most children serving in the RCAF appeared to have joined the military for economic reasons, and surveys found that an overwhelming majority did so with parental consent. In its report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Cambodian authorities claimed children lied about their age in order to join the army for financial reasons.334 Testimonies of children support this finding. Child soldiers attending the LICADHO workshop above stated they had joined for economic reasons or because they were orphans, although one claimed he had signed up because of his hatred of the Khmer Rouge for burning down houses and terrorising his village.335

Local commanders had economic incentives to recruit children as "ghost soldiers" by falsifying their ages and using the names of adult soldiers who had deserted, disappeared or died, in order to continue collecting their salaries and benefits.336 A UNICEF study found that only 74% of 199 child soldiers interviewed had received their salaries regularly, while commanders allegedly pocketed the rest.

There were also widespread reports of forced recruitment by the RCAF during the civil war. During the fighting, RCAF soldiers raided villages, demanding payment from parents in return for their child's exemption from the draft. If they could not pay, boys were taken away.337 According to one 41-year-old man from Ta Prok village boys over 12 were drafted , the younger the age, the higher the price of exemption.338 In November 1997, for instance, soldiers tried to forcibly recruit all men between ages 16 and 45 in the village of Ampok, close to Siem Reap town. On 11 November 1997, 40 new recruits in "self defence" units from Chi Kreng were seen in two large trucks in Siem Reap town, on their way to the O'Smach battlefield. They included at least two boys, aged 15 and 16 years. Several men claimed the boys had been forcibly recruited.

In Prasat Bakon district, according to human rights groups, military draft lotteries and informal war taxes were conducted in at least seven villages in two communes. Village and commune leaders typically took the names of all men aged between 16 and 45 years and then selected which ones would be conscripted.339 In early 1998, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia expressed "grave concern about reports by human rights workers and soldiers in December 1997 of alleged forced conscription of boys as young as 8 or 10 forced to join the army during raids on villages in Oddar Meanchey province by government forces who demanded payment from parents in return for an exemption from the unofficial draft."340

Village militia also recruited children. A LICADHO mobile team found many villages in the northern provinces recruited for their own militias which report to the village chief. These militias commonly included young boys, some as young as 10, who carried weapons and fulfilled guard duties and odd jobs in return for payment in cash or in kind.341

Past Child Deployment

There is substantial evidence that children were used as soldiers by government armed forces.342 In July 1997 young teenagers participated on both the government and opposition sides during the intense fighting that followed a coup by CPP forces against FUNCINPEC elements in government.343 A UNICEF study of 199 child soldiers in three provinces of Northwest Cambodia (Battambang, Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey) found their main activities were: cooks/cleaners (35%), guards (21%) and porters (6%), as well as combatants (16%), bodyguards (16%) and spies (5%). 57% claimed were exposed to frontline situations.344 A study by LICADHO and Asian American Free Labour Institute (AAFLI) found children had worked as spies and to lay mines in Kompong Speu province in conflicts between Khmer Rouge and RCAF troops. Child spies appear to have been used by both sides because of their ability to pass unnoticed by the enemy.345


  • Khmer Rouge (National Army of Democratic Kampuchea)

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979 and its genocidal and repressive policies were responsible for the deaths of millions. After its overthrow by Vietnamese forces in 1979 the Khmer Rouge continued to fight a guerrilla war against successive governments. It withdrew from the 1993 peace accords and continued its military campaign. With the death of its leader Pol Pot in 1997 and the defection of other military leaders the Khmer Rouge disintegrated.

Past Child Recruitment and Deployment

There is substantial evidence of the use of children as soldiers by the Khmer Rouge.346 During the demobilisation process it became evident that even up to 1998 boys and girls aged 10 to 18 were forced to perform military service or paramilitary activities in the zones controlled by the Khmer Rouge. They were typically forced to join by being deprived of food and supplies. Children tended to be used as ammunition carriers or general labourers rather than fighters.347 One 19 year old described in October 1998 that boys of his age and younger served in the Khmer Rouge primarily as medics and cooks. They generally received no pay, but if assigned assigned to the front line they received 500 baht (about US$13) per month. In 1995 the Dey Ath defectors' centre in Phnom Penh, set up by the government to rehabilitate Khmer Rouge defectors, sheltered a 17 year old girl from Pailin who had been taken by the Khmer Rouge when she was orphaned at the age of two. She received military training from the age of five, reportedly as one of a group of 300 to 500 girls under 15 who at by the age of 14 were given guns and uniforms and became active soldiers. Girl soldiers were stationed at the front in all military actions. They received no medical treatment and were punished or killed if they disobeyed.348


International Standards

Cambodia was the first Asian state to sign the CRC-OP-CAC on 27 June 2000. It supports a "straight-18" position.


The government has asserted that the problem of child soldiers no longer exists as it was the first matter to be dealt with in the demobilisation programme.349 As part of this programme the CVAP sought to register all military personnel between May and November 1999, finding only found 262 underage soldiers nationwide. However, government documents acknowledge that there may be other children who registered by lying about their age and that these children also need to be demobilised.350 Indeed, the actual number of child soldiers in need of demobilisation are believed to be much higher. After the government registration exercise, 15,551 ghost soldiers were identified and eliminated from the payroll, with a total of 163,346 dependants ("ghost children") entitled to benefits.351 It is feared that only some 35% of all child soldiers will be formally demobilised because they are not given priority, because they may choose to remain in the army, or because their age will embarrassment the government.352

Despite widespread poverty there is strong opposition to child recruitment in Cambodia. In 1999 an ICRC survey found that 97 per cent of respondents believed under-18s should not take part in hostilities, and many expressed a preference for a minimum age of 21.353

The need for government support in reintegrating and rehabilitating child soldiers is evident.354 Pressure from donors on Cambodia to demobilise has raised concerns that children may be expelled without their special needs being taken into account. In June 2000 the Committee on the Rights of the Child, session welcomed the enactment of legislation prohibiting the military recruitment of children under 18 and Cambodia's willingness to demobilise remaining under-age soldiers. It expressed a concern about insufficient measures for social reintegration and the physical rehabilitation of former child soldiers, urging Cambodia to work with UNICEF on this aspect and to prevent further child recruitment.355 The UNICEF Cambodia programme for 2001-2005 emphasises the rights and needs of child soldiers and aims to support government efforts to formulate policies and programmes in light of ongoing demobilisation.356

324 Blaustein and Flanz, op. cit.

325 Seaman, T. Briefing Paper on Child Soldiers in Cambodia, LICADHO, Phnom Penh, 8/99; Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia, Mr. Thomas Hammarberg submitted in accordance with Commission resolution 1997/49, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1998/95, 20/2/98, para. 134.

326 Initial Report of Cambodia to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/11/Add. 16, 24/6/98, para. 218.

327 Birsel, R., "Cambodian army cut plan set to begin", Reuters, 20/2/00.

328 Ibid.

329 citing UN Graca Machel case study on Cambodia, 1994-95.

330 citing The Cambodia Daily, 7/00.

331 World Vision Cambodia – Feasibility study on child soldiers, 2/00.

332 RB Children of War, No. 1/98 quoting AFP, 2/12/97, see

333 Seaman, T. op. cit.

334 Cambodia report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, op. cit., para. 225.

335 Ibid.

336 Seaman, T. op. cit.

337 RB Children of War, No. 1/98 quoting AFP, 2/12/97, see

338 Pape, E., "Conscription and fear sweep Siem Rap", Phnom Penh Post, 21/11/97.

339 Ibid.

340 Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia, op. cit., para. 135.

341 Seaman, T., op. cit.

342 Seaman, T., op. cit.

343 Report of the Special Representative in Cambodia, op. cit., para. 134.

344 Information provided by UNICEF to the Asia Pacific Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers, Kathmandu, May 2000.

345 Ibid.

346 RB newsletter No 1/98 op.cit.

347 Seaman, T. op. cit.

348 Seaman, T. op. cit.

349 UN Press release, "CRC began consideration of an initial report of Cambodia, 24/5/00. A joint report issued by the UN and the Cambodian government in 2000 ("Children and Employment.) states that most child soldiers in Cambodia were demobilised, and lists other current child labour problems. Links between demobilisation and increases in other sectors of child labour need to be explored further.

350 UNICEF op. cit.; see also CVAP Project Implementation Manual for the pilot demobilisation.

351 Information provided by UNICEF and the Cambodian Government representative to the Asia Pacific Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers, Kathmandu, May 2000.

352 World Vision – Cambodia Feasibility study on child soldiers, CEDC program.

353 Greenberg Research, Inc., People on War, Country Report Cambodia: ICRC worldwide consultation on the rules of war, ICRC, Geneva, 12/99.

354 UNICEF Underage soldiers in Cambodia, 5/00.

355 CRC/C/15/Add. 128 Concluding observations: Cambodia. 2/6/00.

356 UN document: E/ICEF/2000/P/L.9: UNICEF country note on Cambodia for the UN Economic and Social Council. 5/11/99.


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