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.

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Reconciling “Unbridgeable Differences” in Vietnam

Last week, U.S. Sec of State 

A fourth and final lesson of the Vietnam conflict is playing out before our eyes: that with sufficient effort and will, seemingly unbridgeable differences can be reconciled. The fact that Mr. Obama is the third consecutive American president to visit Vietnam is proof that old enemies can become new partners.

Looking to the future, we know that mutual interests, above all else, will drive our partnership with Vietnam. But it is strengthened, as well, by the natural affinities between our societies. These include family ties, a tendency toward optimism, a fierce desire for freedom and independence and a hard-earned appreciation that peace is far, far preferable to war.

 

Perhaps this is another reminder that the conditions of the present are not permanent. Nations and individuals who are currently at odds may find themselves as future allies. All is flux.

One Example of Agent Orange’s Legacy

This film — Chau, Beyond the Lines  has been nominated for an Academy award in the category of short documentary.  I’m not particularly interested in such awards, but in this case I’m grateful to learn of this film and that it raises awareness of how the effects of the Vietnam War continue to linger. 

Year in Review: Top Posts of 2015

Congolese children play on a destroyed military tank in Kibumba, DRC. Prime Collective.

Congolese children play on a destroyed military tank in Kibumba, DRC. Source: Prime Collective.

These were the most viewed posts of the year. It wasn’t the biggest year for this blog in terms of number of visitors, but there were a few highlights. Themes included war, human frailty, sex and love. I ranked them below, with #1 being the most read.

 

13) …And They Shall Beat Their Tanks into Playgrounds (Mar 24th, 70 words) 

   A simple collection of photos that I thought would inspire hope. “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares.”

 

12) Thoughts on PTS and “Moral Injuries”  (Jun 24th, 898 words)

    “If there is any good news, perhaps it’s that individuals who suffer a moral injury must, almost by definition, have some deep reservations about certain acts of violence. After all, one’s sense of morality cannot be injured if it didn’t exist in the first place. Secondly, the concept of ‘injury’ implies that healing is possible.”

 

11) Did the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Affect Child Growth? (Jun 1st, 705 words)

   Yes. A look at some old data.

 

10) Courage and the Past (Apr 20th, 710 words)

   “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  ― James Baldwin

 

9) Confronting Human Frailty (Mar 4th, 557 words)

   Seeking lessons from the Tragic and Utopian perspectives of human nature.

 

8) “The Fundamental Connection That We All Share” (Jul 28th, 222 words)

   Very short post on President Barack Obama’s observing famous fossils in human evolution. All people have evolved from our common origins. We’re all connected.  

 

7) “To Tame the Savageness of Man” (Aug 4th, 981 words)

   Another attempt at finding hope.Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” –Robert F. Kennedy, on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination (1968)

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Being Wrong

It gives me hope when people can admit they were wrong. There’s something redeeming about admitting that one’s judgment is fallible rather than refusing to admit error for the sake of ego.

As an example, this clip from Errol Morris’ film “The Fog of War” features Robert McNamara discussing the events of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In it, McNamara revealed that the U.S. likely misread sonar signals that supposedly indicated an increase in Vietnamese aggression. This misinterpretation helped escalate the war, causing irreparable harm to many. The key exchange:

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40 Years After the Second Indochina War

Today does not escape easily from yesterday.

Several media outlets have published stories in the last few days marking the 40th anniversary of the ‘end’ of the Vietnam War (although it is more accurately known as the Second Indochina War because it also involved the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand).  

Some of these stories are about families of American veterans still searching for the remains of lost loved ones.  Others are about the lingering divisions between northern and southern Vietnamese, even within the same family.

Perhaps Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California, best summarized these accounts with his NYTimes essay “Our Vietnam War Never Ended”. He describes moving to the US as a young boy and then growing up in San Jose, California with a foot in two cultures, as well as the struggles and successes of Vietnamese and other refugee groups in the US. And despite the fact that his family members have achieved a lot, such as producing a professor at a prestigious university, he writes that their story is not a fairy tale: 

“our family story is a story of loss and death, for we are here only because the United States fought a war that killed three million of our countrymen (not counting over two million others who died in neighboring Laos and Cambodia).”

Those two themes, that the war never truly ended, and that even those who survived and succeeded later in life have stories of loss and death, are important reminders of the past’s ability to reach into the present, even after forty years of yesterdays. All wars are unique, but their most consistent feature of war is the creation of suffering, which can last for decades, perhaps even centuries. Continue reading

The Biology of Forced Displacement

“Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”  – UNHCR

We crossed the Mekong to get to Thailand at night, so no one would see us. We had always lived in the mountains (of northern Laos), so we did not know how to swim. When we came to the river, we used anything to help us float – bamboo, bicycle tubes. But at night, it is easy to get lost. Someone in our group said: ‘Remember, if you get lost when you’re going down the river (with the current), don’t panic. Thailand is on your right.’ ”

 

 

Every refugee has a story. The one above was told to me by a Hmong man I met in French Guiana in 2001. I went to learn about the experiences of the people there and how they had adjusted to being resettled half a world away, from Southeast Asia to a French ‘overseas department’ in Amazonia. They were actually doing quite well at the time, living as independent farmers who had been given land by the government years earlier.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

They also retained a good degree of cultural continuity. While most are fluent in French, the majority of the 2,000+ Hmong in the country lived in rural, semi-isolated, ethnically homogenous villages. This gave them a buffer of sorts, allowing them to acculturate on their own terms. As they often put it, they were “free to be their own boss,” free to be Hmong, and most said they were happy with life in French Guiana. This combination of traits – economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, mostly content, living in a rural overseas department – is not the typical refugee story. In fact, because of that relative uniqueness, the French Guiana Hmong have drawn attention from media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times.

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