In 1970s, shortly after Marshal Lon Nol’s government staged a successful coup in Cambodia and started a civil war bringing decades of poverty and political instability to the region, the United States gave the regime a loan of $274 million.
The money was mostly for food aid.
During the time, the U.S. fighter jets also carried out secret carpet-bombings, dropping over 500,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia's countryside and killing at least 500,000 people, including women and children.
Now, after nearly half a century and thousands of human lives later, America wants Cambodia to repay the war debt, which has now reached a staggering $500 million as the Asian country has been refusing to enter the repayment program.
“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,” William Heidt, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, told Cambodia Daily. “I will say that the issue of cancelation … that wasn’t on the table when I was here in the 1990s. It has never been on the table since then. So we have never discussed seriously or considered canceling that debt with Cambodia.”
Cambodia, meanwhile, has a vastly different stance.
After the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on Washington and asked them to cancel the debt — a request similar to the one he made to former President Barack Obama in 2010, urging him to convert the debt to humanitarian aid.
“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 said during an international conference earlier this month, referring to the brutal U.S. bombing of Cambodian territory during the Vietnam War. “We should raise our voices to talk about the issue of the country that has invaded other (countries) and has killed children.”
Hun Sen claimed the U.S.-backed right wing Lon Nol government used the money on weapons with which they fought the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge, which finally took over the country in 1975.
However, political executions, disease and forced labor claimed more than 2 million lives during that period.
“He (Heidt) has the gall to demand the ‘loans’ back even though either the Khmer Rouge or the current government have been in power since 1975, that this money was still due,” said former Reuters bureau chief James Pringle, who served in the Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and witnessed the invasion of Cambodia. “Cambodia does not owe even a brass farthing to the U.S. for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”
The news has reportedly sparked fury among the people of Cambodia, most of who do not believe they should repay the American government — and they do have a valid point. After all, this debt bought guns and grenades that killed scores of civilians during the civil war.
“At the same time the U.S. 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,” said former Australian ambassador to Cambodia Tony Kevin. “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.”