PHNOM PENH, Oct 25 (Reuters) Cambodia's parliament approved compulsory military service for men between 18 and 30 today, despite years of pushing by international donors for a cut in the southeast Asian nation's bloated armed forces.
The opposition said parliament's approval of the law was simply a government ploy to mask a failure to find jobs for a rapidly expanding workforce.
''Every year, around 300,000 young people reach the age of 18 and cannot find jobs,'' said opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
''In order to control these young jobless people, they are forcing them to enroll in the army.'' The law carries a jail term of up to five years for men who refuse to join up for the statutory 18 months of duty. It does not apply to women.
Defense minister Tea Banh said the recruitment was necessary as many of those in the existing armed forces -- officially more than 100,000 men -- were too old or too sick to serve.
''It seems we have big numbers of soldiers, but some of them are in poor health,'' he told reporters. ''We need our sons to serve our country in case a bad situation comes along. No one can say war will not happen. We have to be ready.'' For a nation of 13 million people, Cambodia has a huge military, the legacy of decades of civil war that only came to a complete conclusion with the final surrender of the Khmer Rouge in 1998.
A year later, under pressure from donor governments, Phnom Penh launched an ambitious plan to return more than 30,000 troops to civilian life and reduce spending on the military, which was consuming nearly half the annual budget.
However, the scheme ran into funding problems after just 1,500 soldiers were demobbed.
A similar World Bank-backed ''swords for ploughshares'' scheme in 2001 and 2002 failed after becoming mired in a corruption scandal.
Officials from the World Bank were not immediately available for comment on the conscription law.
REUTERS SAM BS1404