Fury in Cambodia as US asks to be paid back hundreds of millions in war debts

    I forwarded this first to a delegation of Veterans For Peace who are now touring Viet Nam for 17 days, and I am accompanying them. They have seen some of the terrible legacies of the war in Viet Nam — consequences very similar to what neighboring Laos and Cambodia have experienced.  So this article has special resonance for them.

    It is also a reminder of the hard bargain the U.S. insisted upon during negotiations with Viet Nam which led to normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995.  The current government of Viet Nam was required to repay an old debt of the Saigon regime which collapsed in 1975, loans which had been provided during the war totaling some $145 million US dollars.  The Vietnamese eventually agreed, and repaid the first installments totaling about $15 million before then-Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John McCain intervened (and rightly so, in the opinion of many veterans) with congressional action which converted that debt to an “education” fund to provide study opportunities for Vietnamese students in the U.S. and American students in Viet Nam.  That was better than an outright repayment, of course — particularly when U.S. humanitarian assistance at that time was less than $4 million a year, for efforts related to UXO cleanup and disability programs that might bring some relief to families facing the awful consequences of Agent Orange.

    Sometimes simple fairness and justice, common decency, and morality must take precedence over the U.S. government’s bookkeeping requirements.  (It might occur to some of us that the U.S. Ambassador in Cambodia should be reminded of that.)

MARCH 11 201

Fury in Cambodia as US asks to be paid back hundreds of millions in war debts


Lindsay Murdoch

Half a century after United States B-52 bombers dropped more than 500,000 tonnes of explosives on Cambodia’s countryside Washington wants the country to repay a $US500 million ($662 million) war debt.

The demand has prompted expressions of indignation and outrage from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Over 200 nights in 1973 alone, 257,456 tons of explosives fell in secret carpet-bombing sweeps – half as many as were dropped on Japan during the Second World War.

The pilots flew at such great heights they were incapable of discriminating between a Cambodian village and their targets, North Vietnamese supply lines – nicknamed the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

The bombs were of such massive tonnage they blew out eardrums of anyone standing within a 1-kilometre radius.

War correspondent James Pringle was two kilometres away from a B-52 strike near Cambodia’s border.

“It felt like the world was coming to an end,” he recalls.

According to one genocide researcher, up to 500,000 Cambodians were killed, many of them children.

US Air Force B-52 dropping bombs over Southeast Asia in the 1960s.
Photo: Public Domain

The bombings drove hundreds of thousands of ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Marxist organisation which seized power in 1975 and over the next four years presided over the deaths of more than almost two million people through starvation disease and execution.

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.

A string of bombs dropped by a US plane exploding across fields in
Southeast Asia. Photo: Supplied

William Heidt, the US’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, said Cambodia’s failure to pay back the debt puts it in league with Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

“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,” Mr Heidt was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Daily.

Opposed: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. Photo: AP

“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,” he said, adding that the US has never seriously considered cancelling the debt.

Cambodia’s strongman prime minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam, hit back, saying “The US created problems in my country and is demanding money from me.”

The massive bombing of Cambodia happened after the US had pulled
out most of its troops from Vietnam. Photo: AP

“They dropped bombs on our heads and then ask up to repay. When we do not repay, they tell the IMF (International Monetary Fund) not to lend us money,” he told an international conference in early March.

“We should raise our voices to talk about the issue of the country that has invaded other (countries) and has killed children.”

Mr Pringle, a former Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City, said no-one could call him a supporter of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia with an iron-fist for three decades.

But he said on this matter he is “absolutely correct.”

“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,” he wrote in the Cambodia Daily.

American Elizabeth Becker, one of the few correspondents who witnessed the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, has also written that the US “owes Cambodia more in war debts that can be repaid in cash.”

Mr Hun Sen pointed out that craters still dot the Cambodian countryside and villagers are still unearthing bombs, forcing mass evacuations until they can be deactivated.

“There are a lot of grenades and bombs left. That’s why so often Cambodian children are killed, because they don’t know that they are unexploded ordnance,” he said.

“And who did it? It’s America’s bombs and grenades.”

A diplomat posted in Phnom Penh between 1971 and 1974 told Fairfax Media the food the US supplied Cambodia came from excess food stocks.

“I remember well that shipments of maize were made,” he said.

“Cambodians do not eat maize so it was fed to the animals.”

He pointed out that the US refused to normalise relations with Vietnam until it accepted to take on the US debt of the former southern regim


3 thoughts on “Fury in Cambodia as US asks to be paid back hundreds of millions in war debts

  1. P​erspective from a friend in the U.S. State Department:

    This one caught my eye. As you know, the U.S. resolved this issue with Vietnam by redirecting all payments for the war debts into the Vietnam Education Foundation. The issue is not actually the money / the loan – the U.S. government remains quite flexible on how to handle the repayment issue, including restructuring, some debt forgiveness, et cetera. The issue is the principle: sovereign debts are assumed by whatever government or regime takes power. The current Cambodian government replaced an internationally-recognized regime that had taken on certain debt obligations. Absent a willingness by today’s Cambodia to acknowledge it has assumed this debt (previously the U.S. suggested it pay for a year establishing the track record that it had recognized this obligation, before discussing any changes to the debt), the USG is not going to cancel or forgive the debt. That’s why the U.S. made Vietnam pay for a while before the VEF was established – even if it planned all along to redirect the funds for Vietnam’s benefit, the United States wanted to establish both the political agreement, and evidence (actual payments) to ensure that this basic principle of sovereign debt remains valid.

    Why does the U.S. care? Otherwise every time there is a coup, or even a change in ruling party via a democratic process, sovereign debts could be questioned. The international financial system is based on states, and allowing political changes to undermine this would create long term problems.

    I totally get the moral argument for debt forgiveness – just pointing out that U.S. insistence on debt repayment is not meant to be punitive or miserly. We’ve found creative ways to deal with the issue before, and all signs suggest that the U.S. remains open to doing the same here. Unfortunately, the more that Hun Sen speaks out about how he absolutely refuses to acknowledge the debt, the more likely it is that the U.S. will insist he accepts it and pays.


    Số lượt thích

    1. Maybe the Cambodians can sue the US government (for terrorism) under Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) of 2016 (nickname 9/11 Act), authorizing federal courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over any foreign state’s support for one’s act of international terrorism against a U.S. national or property regardless if such state is designated as a state sponsor of terrorism or not.

      This law greatly narrows the scope of sovereign immunity.

      Though the law mentions mainly foreign governments, citizens of other countries are considering using this law to sue the US government.

      See for example Iraqis Threaten to Sue U.S. for War Crimes.

      Số lượt thích

      1. Another friend said:

        Your State Department friend makes some valid points about U.S. policy and the reasons for it, notwithstanding the hideous war crimes we perpetrated against the nation in question.

        However, there is another aspect of why the American approach described in his comments worked with Vietnam and not (yet anyway) with Cambodia. His phrase: “the U.S. made Vietnam pay”….. totally excludes why Vietnam could be “made” to pay, but not Cambodia.

        The part he missed is Vietnam’s rare (perhaps unique) political culture which is oft described in the Vietnamese language phrase: “Bỏ qua quá khứ, hướng tới tương lai”) (Set the past aside, orient on the future)

        Note the phrase is clear to “set the past aside” is NOT to forget the past! Part of Vietnamese culture is to learn from experience (rút kinh nghiệm) and then move on! They’re just so damn smart! Peace loving, heroic and smart.

        So Vietnamese history of a series of:

        (1) Trying to live in peace;
        (2) Being invaded, i.e. China, France, Japan, France again, United States, China/Khmer Rouge last.
        (3) Defeating or outlasting all invaders and regaining independence and freedom; (độc lập và tự do)
        (4) Reestablishing good relations (except Khmer Rouge who are gone forever) with all former invaders. China remains problematic, but that’s China’s fault—not Vietnam’s.
        (5) Vietnam’s basic foreign policy is: Đa dạng hoá quan hệ – Diversification of relations, i.e. no permanent enemies, be a friend to every nation consistent with the core policy of preserving Vietnam’s independence.

        I have seen these characteristics so often when interpreting for American delegations from the battlefield during the war, through the Four Party Joint Military Commission, which met in Sài Gòn (January – April 1973) to implement the Paris Agreement to end the war and later for U.S. Delegations led by Richard Armitage, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; General John W. Vessey, President’s Special Emissary on MIA/POW Affairs, Senator John Kerry, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to seek Vietnamese cooperation on gaining the fullest possible accounting for our military personnel missing from the war that we—not they perpetrated! But they did cooperate! It also helped that all the American delegation Chiefs, were superb statesmen, who had a great understanding of Vietnam.

        There are now some 195 independent nations in the world—highest in human history.

        Imagine what we would have if all nations had foreign policies similar to Vietnam: WORLD PEACE!

        Số lượt thích

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