Fifty years after American s B-52 bombers dropped over 500,000 tonnes of explosives on Cambodia’s countryside, Washington wants the country to repay a $US500 million war debt.
The demand has prompted fury from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
Last year the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the then-president elect Donald Trump to cancel the debt which had grown over the decades with interest. In 2010, he had also asked former president Barack Obama to convert the “dirty” debt to aid.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports:
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
Tony Kevin, the former Australian ambassador to Cambodia said American activity in the early 70s had done great harm to Cambodia, and that it was well understood in foreign policy circles that it had contributed to rise of the Khmer Rouge.
ABC Online reports:
Lon Nol was toppled in 1975 by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, under which an estimated 1.7 million people died in less than four years, plunging Cambodia into decades of poverty and political instability.
“At the same time the US was giving weapons to Lon Nol, it was bombing the Cambodian countryside into oblivion and creating millions of refugees fleeing into Phnom Penh and destroying all political fabric and civil life in the country,” Mr Kevin said.
“And all of this was simply to stop the supplies coming down to South Vietnam, as it was then, from the north.
“So the United States created a desert in Cambodia in those years, and Americans know this.”
Mr Kevin said the issue of debt was not raised during his 1994-1997 posting to Cambodia as Australia’s ambassador.
He said he assumed that with the establishment of the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) that oversaw the implementation of agreements for political settlement of the Cambodia civil war, and the normalisation of relations with the US, the debt would have been “forgiven and forgotten”.
“We all would have thought it inconceivable that the United States would be approaching Cambodia now in 2017, 50 years later, with such a bill,” he said.