500 million pieces of silver: Why America owes Cambodia for Kissinger’s atrocities

Forty years ago Henry Kissinger ordered a bombing campaign which tore apart Cambodia’s rural villages. Washington now wants a post-war loan paid back and quietly ignores the half a million people killed by US bombs. Hun Sen has sent them a stern reminder of the price his country already paid.

By Oliver Ward, edited by Francesca Ross

America has called on Cambodia to pay back a US$500 million loan they took out at the end of the Second Indochina War. This is the money Cambodia needed to rebuild after its banker, the United States, itself obliterated Cambodia’s rural villages in illegal bombing raids.

The American air force dropped 53,000 tons of explosive ordinances on Cambodia in 1972. Between February 8 and August 15 of the following year this increased to almost five-fold. The damage was indiscriminate and many innocent Cambodian communities saw heavy losses.

There are still unhealed wounds from the war era

The American Ambassador William Heidt has publicly berated Cambodia over the unpaid debt, saying, it was in, “Cambodia’s interest not to look at the past, but to look at how to solve this because it’s important to Cambodia’s future.”

This raises a question. If Cambodia’s interests are now so important to the US, why were they not forty years ago when American firepower was ripping homes and lives apart? Washington’s hypocrisy is glaring.

Kissinger demanded  his illegal bombing campaign destroyed, “anything that moves”.  However, decades later Cambodia is under pressure and the former Secretary of State’s attempts to destroy the country is forgotten. Instead politicians, academics and the writers of modern history celebrate him and his work.

US bombs created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge to rise to power

More than 500,000 Cambodians are thought to have been killed between 1969 and 1975. Three million people, or around half the country’s population, were forced to leave their homes during the 1973 campaign.

Kissinger showed no remorse. He chided a Cambodian envoy the day after bombing intensified, saying that, “we would rather err on the side of doing too much.”

The Khmer Rouge benefitted from this bloodlust.  People, “were ready to believe what they were told” after the bombs came said one former Khmer Rouge Cadre. “Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge”.

The US government is yet to accept responsibility

It is estimated to have cost around US$4 billion to remove the unexploded ordinance and clean up the Cambodian landscape. If William Heidt wants to talk about paying debts and moving forward, then it is surely the US who should be making reparations. Writing off the Cambodian loan would be a good place to start.

The US is denying its responsibilities by continuing to demand repayment of a loan to the country they shattered.  Much of the bombing was undertaken without the knowledge of the international community. It was not sanctioned by the US Congress. The whole campaign could be seen as a crime against humanity by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

If the US accepts what happened the government might be forced to pay reparations. Government officials could be sued or tried as war criminals at the International Criminal Court.

Diplomatic ties will not flourish while the west continues to treat Kissinger as a hero

In just four years as Secretary of State Kissinger sabotaged the Vietnamese peace talks and extended the American bombing campaign deep into Laos and Cambodia. Today Hillary Clinton worked to associate herself with him in her presidential campaign. She sang his praises in her 2014 memoir, stating that diplomats like him, “transcend partisan differences” and calling him a friend.

Universities across America invite him to speak to the next generation of policy makers without anyone asking difficult questions. Every time Kissinger is praised in American diplomatic circles, or is applauded during his speeches, it reinforces the idea that the US can do what it wants.

Hun Sen is withdrawing from Western cooperation

Hun Sen, the outspoken Cambodian Prime Minister, recently cancelled important military exercises with Australian and American forces. He is right to do so. Defending the move he reminded western leaders, “When you bombed on my country and you killed people, did you ever think about human rights?”

The shadow of history falls long across his decision. Military forces from western countries have acted above international law and their politicians and leaders have not faced trial for their crimes and atrocities. Victims of the bombing campaign that Kissinger ordered will never see him held to account. He is America’s favourite war criminal.

Cambodia was once America’s victim. Today it has room to stand up for itself.  Allegiances in the Asia-Pacific region are evolving and global powers are courting Cambodia’s support and collaboration. Cambodia can, and should, reject meaningless cooperation until it gets what it deserves.