On February 3, 2017, the United States Ambassador William Heidt sat across from his Cambodian counterparts and told them that Cambodia should work on a deal with the United States to pay its $500 million war debt.
The debt was originally a $274 million loan for food supplies for the Lon Nol regime in the 1960s, but has grown to about $500 million today.
Mr. Heidt said: “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 rising rapidly.”
Yet, as of 2015, according to the World Bank, Cambodia was ranked 174th out of 214 countries in terms of gross national income per capita.
It is true that Cambodia has been making some financial progress since 1979, but then again, can Cambodia today do any worse than the Khmer Rouge? In urging Cambodia to pay its debt, Mr. Heidt thinks that dwelling on the history of the debt would not be fruitful: “I’m saying it’s 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.”
Well, Mr. Heidt, the past always matters. From October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped an estimated total of at least 2,756,941 tonnes of bombs on Cambodia.
Professor Taylor Owen and Professor Ben Kiernan provided a useful comparison to make sense of this large number in “Bombs over Cambodia”: “To put the revised total of 2,756,941 tonnes into perspective, the Allies dropped just over two million tonnes of bombs during all of World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively. Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history.”
These bombs had a significant impact on Cambodian society, contributing to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. When journalist Bruce Palling asked former Khmer Rouge officer Chhit Do whether the American bombings were used as recruitment propaganda for the Khmer Rouge, he replied: “Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…
“The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told.
“It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…
“Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”
What is remarkable is that the Nixon administration knew that the Khmer Rouge was using the bombings as propaganda. But the illegal bombings never stopped, not until the United States Congress learned about it and halted it in 1973.
By then it was too late, the Khmer Rouge grew to more than 200,000 troops. Professor Kiernan noted: “Although it was an indigenous political phenomenon, Pol Pot’s regime could not have come to power without the massive economic and military destabilisation of Cambodia by the United States, beginning in 1966.”
According to professors Owen and Kiernan, the Nixon Doctrine believed in supplying allied regimes with resources needed to withstand internal and external challenges while the US troops withdrew.
In Cambodia, the US provided military aid to prop up Lon Nol, the US friendly Cambodian general, from 1970 to 1975 while it conducted its illegal and secret bombing campaign.
In a declassified memorandum, Henry Kissinger instructed embassies “to give maximum encouragement to host government assistance for Cambodia.”
Lon Nol was assured of weapons and the US’s intention to be of “further help”. With American support, Lon Nol overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk in March 1970.
The food debt incurred by the Lon Nol regime was essentially caused by the US. The civil war that erupted between the Lon Nol government and the communist Khmer Rouge, as well as the continued US illegal bombings, disrupted Cambodia’s production of rice.
Furthermore, as the Khmer Rouge gained control over Cambodia’s countryside, they cut off rice-producing facilities and food supplies into Phnom Penh. This consequently forced Lon Nol to rely on US airdrops for food.
Requiring Cambodia to pay its war debt incurred by the Lon Nol regime – the regime that was backed and supported by the US – would be inequitable under international law.
The concept of equity under international law is complex and not clearly defined. Nevertheless, according to Professor S.K. Chattopadhyay, in “Equity in International Law: Its Growth and Development”, it can be said to capture “ideas of fairness”, “good faith”, and “moral justice”, and founded upon “reason” and “conscience”.
Scholars have commented that an argument based on equity under international law, as opposed to a strictly legal argument, allows a decision of a dispute to be based on the whole range of surrounding circumstances.
According to Professor Vaughan Lowe in “The Role of Equity in International Law”, strict legal arguments tend to narrow down the issue, excludes “irrelevant” circumstances, and turns a “complex relationship into a one-dimensional relationship susceptible of legal analysis”.
Arguments based on equity, on the other hand, allows a broadening scope of the enquiry, with consideration for the whole context of the situation. Equitable arguments encompass both legal and moral arguments.
An enquiry based on equity is necessary for the case of Cambodia’s war debt because what the US is asking goes beyond the law and shocks the conscience of justice and morality.
If the US wants to discuss payment of the war debt, it is imperative that there first be a discussion on the illegal carpet bombing, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnam War, the coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the rise of Lon Nol and the US’s support of Lon Nol.
And when all of these factors are fully considered, one can only arrive at one result: it would be inequitable to have Cambodia pay its war debt to the US.
If, however, the US remains unconvinced that it is inequitable to require Cambodia to pay its war debt, which was incurred by a regime it supported, to feed starving Cambodians who suffered because of its bombings, then there may be another option.
Mr. Heidt, we could divide the case into two: we could first hash out the restitution that the US owes Cambodia because of its illegal bombings, and then afterwards, maybe then, we could talk about the war debt.
Sothie Keo is a law student in the United States who recently graduated.
Sources: Colin Meyn and Ben Sokhean, US Hits Back At Government Over $500 Million Debt, Democracy, Cambodia Daily (Feb. 6, 2017).
Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, Bombs over Cambodia, THE WALRUS 67-68 (2006).