South Vietnamese marines rush to leave the Cambodian town of Prey-Veng after an operation in 1970.
Donald Trump now wants more than US$500 million back, according to the New York Times. Phnom Penh, however, refuses to pay, saying the US should be paying for leaving its country in tatters, peppered with unexploded bombs.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, the world’s longest serving head of government and an admirer of Trump, has appealed to him to cancel the debt.
“Oh, America and US President Donald Trump, how can this be?” Hun Sen said in February, according to the Cambodia Daily. “You attacked us and demand that we give money.”
Between 1965 and 1975, the US dropped around 500,000 tonnes of explosives on eastern Cambodia, initially in “secret”, in a misguided attempt to disrupt the “Ho Chi Minh” routes used to supply the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Quite how carpet bombing entire grid squares was going to go unnoticed was clearly not addressed in Washington.
In 1969, under president Richard Nixon, the campaign was extended to buy time for US forces to abandon South Vietnam, while hampering the advances of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rebels against the Cambodian government.
Rice farmers fled the bombing and flocked to Phnom Penh, leading the US to lend the anti-communist government of Lon Nol US$274 million to buy American rice, wheat, oil and cotton to address the humanitarian crisis.
“Many, many people came to Phnom Penh from the countryside, so there was nobody to produce food,” said Chhang Song, Lon Nol’s information minister. He now lives in Long Beach, California. “There were 2 million, many, many, and we had to provide food for these people.”
The “Food for Peace” loan was agreed when both countries were preoccupied with their imminent battlefield defeat.
In April 1975, the US left their Cambodian allies to face the wrath of the Khmer Rouge, which started a brutal period of starvation, forced labour and slaughter during which up to 2.2 million citizens died.
During the 1990s, when Cambodia began to emerge from decades of war, Washington said the money was still owed, with interest and fees. It now reaches US$506 million.
Perhaps Phnom Penh could offer to pay with the severed limbs of Cambodians who have stepped on US ordnance since the 1960s.
“We lack the legal authority to write off debts for countries that are able but unwilling to pay,” Jay Raman, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, told the New York Times. “These legal authorities do not change from one administration to the next, absent an action from Congress.”
Cambodia dismisses the loan as invalid because the Lon Nol regime, which grabbed power in a 1970 coup that deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was illegitimate. The US State Department, however, argues that it is defending the international financial system, which would fall apart if administrations were not held responsible for their predecessors’ borrowing.
The US authorities remain convinced that Phnom Penh can pay its bill.
Cambodia recently moved into lower-middle income status, with GDP of about US$19 billion, the International Monetary Fund reported in 2016. Refusals to pay the US is now impeding its ability to borrow internationally.
“I look around me, and to me Cambodia does not look like a country that should be in arrears,” US ambassador William Heidt said in February. He claimed he wanted to “work out a deal that works for both sides” but that cancelling the debt was not on the table.
“From time to time, for reasons I don’t think that we really fully understand, the Cambodian government feels the need to publicly criticise the United States,” Heidt told the Cambodian media. “I think that reflects some kind of political dynamic inside of Cambodia.”
Few observers struggle to understand why Cambodians, almost all of whom lost close relatives in the wars that resulted from US involvement in their country, would be receptive to criticism of Washington.
Hun Sen remains angry about the prolonged US bombing and for its backing of the Khmer Rouge representatives at the UN after Pol Pot was toppled by the 1979 Vietnamese invasion, argues Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”.
Strangio said that the prime minister, who came to power in the 1980s, was “testing the mettle of the Trump administration”.
Since Trump was sworn in, Hun Sen has made several high-profile operations to remove large unexploded US bombs, as part of a wider media campaign to draw attention to the debt dispute.
Phnom Penh’s campaign against the debt has been seen as Hun Sen’s attempt to whip up nationalist fervour and distract attention as civil rights are trampled on.
The issue means the US demands for the protection of human rights and democratic reform in Cambodia ring deeply hollow.
The US debt repayment demands also offer China an open goal.
China pours aid and investment into Cambodia, its closest Asean ally. In return, Phnom Penh has repeatedly scuppered the bloc’s attempts to take a united stand against Beijing on the South China Sea issue.
In marked contrast to demands for cash from Washington, last year Beijing wrote off US$89 million in debt, while offering huge soft loans. China has long since cancelled debts taken on by the Khmer Rouge.
Throughout Pol Pot’s years in power, Communist China was his chief ally, flying in advisers and equipment to streamline the regime’s butchery.
And now the US has managed to hand China the moral high ground.
US influence in Asean is waning rapidly but demanding payments for shattering the region’s stability, economy and ecology only acts as a catalyst in the process.
Picture credit: Flickr