America’s Hubris, Cambodia Version

by Kevin Jon Heller

It is difficult to overstate the horrors the US inflicted on Cambodia from the air during the Vietnam War: 230,000 sorties involving 113,000 different sites; 500,000 tonnes of bombs, as much as the US dropped in the entire Pacific theatre during WW II; at least 50,000, and probably closer to 150,000, innocent civilians killed. Even worse, that bombing campaign, along with the US-backed coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970, is widely credited with helping bring Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to power, and we know how that turned out — at least 1.7 million Cambodians murdered, an auto-genocide of epic proportions.

The US has never apologized for its actions in Cambodia. President Obama didn’t even mention the Vietnam War when he became the first President to visit Cambodia in 2012. The Trump administration, however, is not afraid to discuss Vietnam. On the contrary, it is currently very interested in discussing US actions during the war — to demand that Cambodia pay back $500 million it owes the US for providing support to Lon Nol’s unpopular regime:

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.

Look forward, not backward. Where have we heard that before?

I have little doubt that Cambodia’s debt to the US is valid under international law. But that does not mean the US has the moral right to demand payment — much less to compare Cambodia to debt scofflaws like Zimbabwe. (How much does the US owe the UN right now? It was almost $3 billion at the end of 2015.) As James Pringle, Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh city during the Vietnam War, recently wrote in the Cambodia Daily, “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.”

But what do I know? Perhaps Donald Trump needs the $500 million to finance the US’s current bombing campaigns in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Or to build the wall between the US and Mexico.

12 Responses

  1. John,

    This issue has been around for years, and virtually every administration brings it up – almost on a yearly basis.

    While I agree with you that it is supremely ironic (and pathetic) that the US can be so petty and unforgiving, do keep in mind that the US has donated over the years hundreds of millions of dollars to Cambodia. And by all accounts, it will continue to do so.

    This is more of a pro forma request, so I would not get all that worked-up about it. That said, when considering Trump’s wall-building fantasy (wait and see if the US Congress will allocate the funds), you are so right to point out this absurdity of asking Cambodia to pay back a debt from when it was supporting the very corrupt Lon Nol regime, not to mention the damaged and human suffering it caused in carpet-bombing Cambodia

    Nice post and a good refresher on US’s sordid past in Cambodia.


  2. Thanks for posting this. This was clearly carpet bombing and insofar as that is indiscriminate, was this not also a war crime? One is at a loss of words when it comes to expressing the depths of moral outrage this attempt at debt collection calls to mind. Insofar as hubris was once thought to result in nemesis (something akin to ‘instant karma’), one can only hope such “divine retribution” awaits those responsible for instigating this action.

  3. Unbelievable! Perhaps someone in the US will start a petition to ask the government to forget the debt and apologize for the death and destruction.

    People post here nonsense.

  5. Favourite comment on Opinio Juris ever!

  6. “Favourite comment on Opinio Juris ever!”

    Sadly, it makes more sense than almost anything published on “religiousleftlaw” or “jacobinmag”.

  7. Eugene,

    You neglected to mention Agricultural Law and Ratio Juris, the other blogs at which I regularly post on sundry subjects.

  8. You must have misunderstood me: the quality of all those blogs has nothing (or little) to do with you (not) posting on them.

    In any case, gotta take part of my comment back: “religiousleftlaw”, although supremely boring, is (mostly) pretty inoffensive; it even has at least one bona fide legal scholar – Eduardo Penalver – as an author for some reason. I guess my sensibilities were irked by the mention of that hotbed of malignant idiocy – jacobinmag – and I shot from the hip, contrary to my habits.

  9. I did not misunderstand you, as satire is difficult to convey in a blog comment. As a matter of fact, I post far more than anyone at RLL, and there are at least several legal scholars at the blog (not yours truly, however, although I was asked to be a founding member by one of the brightest law profs in the US, namely, Bob Hockett), including, Robert Hockett, Steve Shiffrin, Perry Dane….

  10. ‘Tis true: only a right wing nutjob in fear of the spread of Leftist ideas and alternatives to the status quo would characterize Jacobin magazine as a “hotbed of malignant idiocy.”

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