Michelle Obama, Tell the President to Forgive Cambodia’s Debt

The White House says the U.S. is committed to being more involved in the Asia-Pacific region. This week, Michelle Obama will make a historic solo visit to Cambodia—the first sitting U.S. first lady to visit the country.

When Jacqueline Kennedy traveled to Cambodia in 1967, four years after the assassination of her husband, former President John F. Kennedy, the late Prince Norodom Sihanouk facetiously answered when she asked why he had named a street for her late husband in Sihanoukville, but not in Phnom Penh: “Sihanoukville is very important. It is named after me. Anyway, I have run out of streets in Phnom Penh.”

Ms. Obama will meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany. She will also meet with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in Siem Reap province. It is expected that Ms. Obama will promote her global women’s education initiative, as well as discussing the need “for open and inclusive politics.” It is admirable that Ms. Obama will take this opportunity to use Cambodia as a platform to highlight the importance of women’s rights. Call me a cynic, but like President Barack Obama’s visit to Phnom Penh to attend the November 2012 Asean summit, the first lady’s Cambodia visit will merely be a photo op. However, there is one message that Ms. Obama should carry back to Washington: forgive Cambodia’s debt.

Today, Cambodia is a thriving economy with a burgeoning middle class; it is a prime location for foreign investment, and is home to the grand temples of Angkor, one of the world’s most attractive tourist destinations. Traveling around Cambodia today, one would not suspect that this pearl of Southeast Asia was once a war-torn country, home to one of the worst genocides in modern history, and a pawn used by the world’s superpowers during the Cold War and the Vietnam War. The U.S. played a minor role in the destruction of Cambodia.

Lon Nol’s coup d’etat against Prince Sihanouk in March 1970 immediately launched the government into a civil war against the Khmer Rouge, which was supported by North Vietnam and China. The coup suspended Cambodia’s monarchy, and the country was renamed the Khmer Republic. The U.S. immediately provided military aid and support to the Lon Nol regime, and expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia by using B-52s to carpet-bomb suspected Viet Cong bases along the eastern border. Instead, the half-million tons of bombs missed their targets and killed countless civilians.

This only strengthened the Cambodian communists.

The Khmer Republic’s survival, economy and war effort relied heavily on U.S. aid. By 1973, the U.S. Congress slowly cut military aid to Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic. By the time the Khmer Rouge declared victory in April 1975, the U.S. had spent nearly $2 billion to prop up the Lon Nol government.

Corruption plagued the Lon Nol regime, and was one of the many factors that led to the republic’s downfall. Many soldiers did not get paid, and instead their salaries wound up in their generals’ pockets. Officials in the government sold U.S. military equipment and supplies directly to the Khmer Rouge.

Lon Non, Lon Nol’s younger brother, whom officials called “Petit Frere,” was allegedly involved in international heroin trafficking. His wife was caught with some $170,000 hidden in stuffed animals at Orly Airport in Paris in 1973.

The Lon Nol regime is no more. The Cambodian civil wars are now over. The country was shattered and is now rebuilding. However, the U.S. government still demands that Cambodia repay the $300 million it loaned to the country between 1972 and 1974.

The White House is right to aim for the U.S. to be more engaged in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. should maintain close ties with Cambodia. However, forgiving the loans the U.S. issued to the Lon Nol regime would not only show that the U.S. is merciful, but also that it is accountable for its mistakes. The U.S. must not overlook the bombing campaigns, both secret and overt, it conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To quote Indira Gandhi, “Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.”

Narak Kay is a political science graduate from the University of Maryland who currently works for the Executive Office for Immigration Review under the U.S. Department of Justice.

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