It has been almost half a century since their civil war began, but now the US has angered Cambodia by asking the small South-East Asian nation to repay hundreds of millions of dollars for its military assistance, particularly during Operation Freedom Deal, a bombing campaign that began in May 1970 and didn’t cease until August 1973.
US B-52s dropped over 500,000 tons of explosives over a four-year period of carpet-bombing Cambodia, including 257,456 tons over a 200-night span in 1973 alone, more than the US dropped on Japan for the entirety of the second world war. The bombers flew at such altitudes that they were unable to distinguish between villages and their initial targets — North Vietnamese supply lines.
With limited data, it is estimated that between 40,000-150,000 Cambodians including women and children were killed during the campaign and another 600,000 of their then 7.5 million population displaced after 20 percent of the country’s property was destroyed. This indirectly lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge who ruled for the following four years, responsible for the deaths of approximately 2 million more through starvation, disease, and execution.
Now the US has sent Cambodia the bill. The debt started out as a $274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government, but now stands at $500 million after their refusal to repay. US ambassador in Phnom Penh William Heidt was quoted in the Cambodia Daily, “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.”
Heidt continued, “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,” adding that the US never seriously considered cancelling the debt. But not a lot of Cambodians agree with Mr. Heidt, particularly Cambodia’s staunch prime minister for the past three decades, Hun Sen.
“They dropped bombs on our heads and then ask us to repay. When we do not repay, they tell the IMF (International Monetary Fund) not to lend us money,” Sun said earlier in the month. “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. And who did it? It’s America’s bombs and grenades.”
Another diplomat that was posted in Phnom Penh during the strikes acknowledged the food supplies, but claims it came from excess US 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.”
Only time will tell how this situation will pan out.