In a famous, somewhat apocryphal story, a burglar breaking into a house falls through the skylight on the roof, injuring himself. But rather than being punished for the attempted robbery, the burglar actually sues the homeowner for his injuries. He wins the case, along with a payout from the person he was robbing.
The story has endured as long as it has because of the infuriating upending of the assumed moral order that it represents. It’s outrageous, we think to ourselves, that a victim should be forced to compensate their victimizer for something that happened while they were in the process of being victimized.
And yet that is exactly what the US government is doing to Cambodia.
Cambodian Ambassador William Heidt recently reaffirmed that the tiny Southeast Asian country still needs to repay a fifty-year-old, now-$500 million debt to the United States that it took on in the midst of suffering US war crimes during a relentless, brutal, illegal bombing campaign.
Hedit’s comments are in response to a lobbying effort launched by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen since Trump came to office to convince his administration to cancel the debt, originally a $274 million loan made in the early 1970s to fund purchase of US cotton, rice, and flour. Gradually accumulating interest since 1975 has led the debt to balloon to the size it is now.
This isn’t a Trump-specific demand. Over the decades, Cambodia has requested that the debt be forgiven multiple times, to no avail. The United States has repeatedly tried to forge agreements with Cambodia to restructure the debt, but Cambodia has refused, arguing the debt isn’t its responsibility.
The Cambodians have a point. For one, the debt was incurred by the government of Lon Nol, which was only in power for five years, and only thanks to a coup against its previous leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. During that time, as even a prominent State Department official arguing for the repayment of the debt in 2008 admitted, the “Lon Nol regime never consolidated its hold on the country.”
Two years after coming to power, Lon Nol rigged an election to keep his unpopular regime in place. If an illegitimate, unpopular, short-lived, and despotic government runs up a massive debt, is it fair to continue punishing its citizens for it decades later?
The demand for repayment is even more egregious when taking into consideration the Nixon administration’s hand in creating the circumstances that required Cambodia to take on this debt, not to mention the misery it piled on the country over the course of seven years.
For one, although the details are murky, there is evidence that the United States had its fingerprints all over the coup that installed the US-friendly Lon Nol.
Its alleged involvement ranged from quietly encouraging Sihanouk’s overthrow to training the Cambodian forces that helped do the deed. By the following month, according to a declassified memo written by Henry Kissinger, embassies had been “instructed to give maximum encouragement to host government assistance for Cambodia,” and Lon Nol was personally assured he would receive weapons and “further help.”
If the United States did indeed help install Lon Nol, then it’s responsible for the very food shortage that put Cambodia into debt.
The resulting civil war between Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge disrupted the production of rice (Cambodians’ staple food) and sent more than two million refugees abandoning food-producing areas in the countryside and flooding to the capital, Phnom Penh, increasing the dire need for food while depriving the government of the ability to provide it.
But besides this, the massive, secret, and illegal bombing campaign alone that was launched first by Lyndon Johnson, then intensified by Nixon, did enough to contribute to this shortage. Nixon’s carpet-bombing campaign cauterized the Cambodian countryside, burning crops, forests, and farmland to the ground while turning farm animals to ash.
It was also hidden from the American people and congress.
As Greg Grandin writes, Henry Kissinger created an elaborate plan to keep the military campaign a secret for as long as possible that included a “dual reporting system” “to circumvent ‘the Strategic Air Command’s normal command and control system — highly classified in itself — which monitors for budgetary requirements such items as fuel usage and bomb tonnage deployed.’ … All documentation — maps, computer printouts, messages, and so on — that might reveal the true targets was burned.”
Even if Nixon’s administration wasn’t culpable for the circumstances that forced Cambodia into debt, however, the horrors this bombing campaign visited upon the Cambodian people — “ ‘savage’ was a word that was used again and again,” Grandin quotes one former Kissinger aide as saying — are enough reason for the government to forgive the debt, if only as an inadequate and decades-too-late apology.
As Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan have argued, Cambodia is quite possibly the most heavily bombed country in history.
From 1965 to 1973, the United States dropped 2.75 million tons of explosives on the country — “anything that flies on anything that moves,” in Kissinger’s words. By contrast, the Allies dropped just north of 2 million tons during the whole of World War II.
One Khmer Rouge member described how villagers sometimes “literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came” and were left shell-shocked. “Even though the shelling had stopped,” he said, “they couldn’t hold down a meal.” Another described how bombs would incinerate villagers in their own homes before they could escape, and how the bombing “engulfed the forests.”
Like the debt today’s Cambodians never signed up for, the remnants of a war they never fought continue to devastate the country. Sixty-four thousand Cambodians have been killed by unexploded ordnance since 1979, most of it land mines, rockets, and bombs left over from the civil war.
Nixon’s ghastly bombing campaign was also a direct cause of the rise of the Khmer Rouge and, consequently, the Cambodian genocide.
According to Kiernan, “Pol Pot’s regime could not have come to power without the massive economic and military destabilization of Cambodia by the United States,” which used the devastation caused by the bombing to both recruit members and justify their murderous policies.
As the aforementioned Khmer Rouge member explained years later, the US bombing was central to their propaganda:
Every time after there had been a bombing, they would take people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were … And the political education cadres would pick up pieces of shrapnel and these slabs of metal that had been part of the bomb casings to show them to the people … They would say that the purpose of the bombing was to completely destroy the country … to annihilate the population.
Once in power, the Khmer Rouge would go on to kill anywhere between 1.2 million and 2.8 million people.
In the face of all this, insisting that Cambodia continue to pay back half a billion dollars to the United States is repugnant on a number of levels, if not exactly a new tactic in the Western world. France famously crippled the world’s first black republic by demanding (at gunpoint) in 1825 that Haiti compensate the French for its own independence and liberation from French slavery to the tune of 150 million francs — a debt France only cancelled 185 years later, following the 2010 earthquake.
There’s ample precedent for the United States to simply forgive the debt now. In 2004, the Bush administration happily cancelled the entire $4.1 billion (eight times the Cambodian sum) that Iraq owed the United States, going well above the 80 percent Iraq’s other creditors committed to forgiving.
“Lifting the crushing burden of the old regime’s debt is one of the most important contributions we can make to Iraq’s new beginning,” Colin Powell quite reasonably said at the time. (Though Bush’s debt forgiveness was also a Trojan Horse for the IMF to make a “structural adjustment” to the Iraqi economy.)
If the US government was really so loath to give up the money for “nothing,” it could always use the prospect of debt forgiveness as an incentive to nudge the Cambodian government into carrying out reforms in favor of democracy and political freedom, for instance, given that US policymakers are often expressing concern about its poor record in these respects. (Though, given the US track record on such reforms, any such encouragement should be looked at with an extremely skeptical eye.)
Or, as journalist Elizabeth Becker (who covered the genocide in the 1970s) has suggested, it could redistribute the money to those affected by the bombings, or even refinance it for a worthy purpose like education. There’s precedent: The United States did the same with Vietnam’s debt, creating the Vietnam Education Fund in 1997, which refunded around 40 percent of Vietnam’s debt repayments.
More likely, however, the Trump administration will refuse to do anything but demand repayment for the debt lest it be accused of letting a foreign country rip off the United States, while succeeding administrations will continue to ignore Cambodia’s entreaties. If Haiti is anything to go by, we can expect the US government to do the right thing by around 2160.