Should Cambodia Pay War Debts to the United States?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the U.S. is seeking $500 million in repayment from Cambodia for a Vietnam War-era loan, primarily in the form of excess maize. According to the SMH:

The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

As the article also pointed out, many people across the political spectrum are outraged by the request, given the role the U.S. played in bombing Cambodia. According to Yale historian Ben Kiernan, from 1965-73 U.S. planes dropped nearly 2.8 million tons of bombs over the eastern part of the country. This was part of a larger war meant to deny communist troops and supplies from North Vietnam from reaching the South via Laos and Cambodia.

Although casualty estimates from war are notoriously difficult, U.S. bombing was estimated to have killed 50,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, many of them civilians. Furthermore, historians such as Kiernan have argued that without the bombing, the Khmer Rouge might not have grown as much as it did, with people radicalized against U.S. brutality and into the arms of the K.R. Their rise to power, of course, led to more atrocities and genocide only a few years later. 

Given all of that, it seems preposterous, or at least tone-deaf, for the U.S. to request repayment. And it’s not just Cambodians who think so. Also noted in the SMH article was a quote from James Pringle, a former Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City, who was near Cambodia during the war: 

“Cambodia does not owe a brass farthing to the US for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”


U.S. bombing of Cambodia from 1965-1973 (by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan). Source.

Finally, the request for repayment is at odds with the message sent by Barack Obama when he visited Laos in September last year. While Laos is often referred to as the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the history of war, the total tonnage dropped was actually higher in neighboring Cambodia. Both countries are still struggling to remove it all, and there have been lingering costs since U.S. bombing ended. Much of the countrysides are still unsafe to farm, and ordinary civilians who unwittingly happen upon a bomb or who desperately collect them to sell as scrap metal become casualties.

During Obama’s historic visit (the first ever by a U.S. President), he said in reference to U.S. bombing: “The United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.” Obama then pledged to increase the amount of funds the U.S. would donate to Laos to $90 million over three years to help it remove leftover, unexploded ordnance (UXO) which litters the country to this day.

In terms of domestic U.S. politics, we are of course in a new presidential administration. However, the current ambassador to Cambodia, William Heidt, was an Obama-era appointee who said this: 

“To me, Cambodia does not look like a country that should be in arrears…buildings coming up all over the city, foreign investment coming in, government revenue is rapidly rising … I’m saying it is in Cambodia’s interest not to look to the past, but to look at how to solve this because it’s important to Cambodia’s future,” adding that the US has never seriously considered cancelling the debt.

All of this is logically inconsistent. If the U.S. has a moral obligation to help Laos heal, then by extension the same should hold true for Cambodia. It also makes little sense for Ambassador Heidt to say that Cambodia should not look to the past, when that is in fact what the U.S. is doing, asking for a decades old debt to be repaid by a country it heavily bombed. None of it makes sense. 

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