Sor Hun and the monks at his pagoda waited for a few days before going near two chemical barrels dropped on their village near the Vietnamese border in 1970 as part of a U.S. aerial assault meant to flush out Viet Cong guerillas believed to be hiding out there. Two other barrels had exploded on impact.
“We were afraid that the chemicals could spread, so we decided to dig the ground and buried them about a meter and a half deep,” said Mr. Hun, who was a 17-year-old pagoda boy at the time. “In 2011, students built a garden and dug the ground near the barrel, and it leaked a little odor, but it was covered with dirt again.”
Mr. Hun, a Koki commune councilor, said that he told the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) about the barrels in 2013, but was told that they were not prepared to deal with them, so he let the issue drop.
However, four days after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president, CMAC announced that it would have to temporarily evacuate hundreds of villagers to remove the buried barrels of 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile.
The government says the timing was a coincidence, but the discovery and international media attention it has received fit seamlessly into a campaign by the ruling party to shame the U.S. into forgiving what is now a nearly $450 million war debt from the Lon Nol regime.
“Thousands of Cambodians to be Evacuated After US Bombs From Vietnam War Found,” read the headline on an Agence France-Presse article. “Vietnam War-Era Tear Gas Bombs Found in Cambodian Village” was the Associated Press headline.
Tenh Chea, Romeas Hek district governor, said the operation was set in motion when National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha visited the pagoda for a groundbreaking ceremony on a dining hall at the pagoda on January 12. Mr. Chea said General Sokha asked CMAC to inspect the area the day before the ceremony.
CMAC director Heng Ratana claimed that the agency had only learned of the barrels a few days ago. “CMAC just received this information a week ago,” he said. “You should not be concerned about that.”
Since Mr. Trump was elected in November, Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken every opportunity possible to mention the destruction wrought by the U.S. bombardment of Cambodia between 1965 and 1973, when it is believed to have dropped 2.75 million tons of ordnance on more than 113,000 Cambodian sites. Casualty estimates range from 5,000 Cambodians to more than half a million.
“I hope the government of Mr. Donald Trump will think about the debt Cambodia owes the United States from the Khmer Republic of General Lon Nol. Should the debt be canceled?” Mr. Hun Sen asked rhetorically in his opening remarks at last month’s Sea Festival in Sihanoukville.
“It is difficult for us to tell Cambodians to accept debt to buy bombs and bullets to kill Cambodian people.”
Mr. Hun Sen sent the same message last week during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“America entirely invaded, that is the real story,” he said. “Now there are lots of leftover bombs, unexploded ordnance of America, so America should pay more to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to take responsibility, but they don’t. They have demanded our debt as victims of war.”
David Josar, deputy spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the U.S. had invested $114 million over the past 20 years to remove landmines, educate at-risk populations and support victims, adding that U.S. policy regarding the Lon Nol-era debt had been “consistent.”
“Cambodia’s bilateral debt to the United States is a long-standing topic of conversation and something we would like to see resolved,” he said in an email. “However, additional discussions are needed before we are able to move forward on this topic.”
Between 1972 and 1974, the U.S. Agriculture Department financed $274 million in purchases of U.S. cotton, rice and flour by the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic, allowing Lon Nol’s government to focus its own financial resources on its fight against a communist insurgency. With fees accrued over the decades, Cambodia’s government was on the hook for $445 million in 2009, according to the U.S. State Department.
Kem Monovithya, deputy public affairs director for the opposition CNRP, said the ruling party’s strategy of publicly attacking the U.S. over the debt was unlikely to make it go away.
“CPP government throwing tantrums or bashing at the US is not going to help their US debt forgiveness request,” she said in an email. “The CPP government has never been helpful in supporting either US interests or values around here. I see no prospect that the US would cancel the debt anytime soon.”