Old US Bombs Revive Dispute Over $500M War-Era Debt

The head of Cambodia’s largest demining operator cited Monday’s disposal of a pair of decades-old American bombs as part of the government’s mounting efforts to shame the U.S. into canceling the country’s ballooning war-era debt, which now stands at about $500 million.

The dive unit of the government-run Cambodia Mine Action Center (CMAC) spent about two hours removing the bombs from under about a meter of water in Proloung lake, said Pal Choeun, police chief of Kompong Chhnang province’s Kompong Leng district.

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Members of the Cambodian Mine Action Center dive unit remove a war-era US bomb from a lake in Kompong Chhnang province on Monday, in a photograph supplied by CMAC.

“People discovered them a long time ago, in 1980 or 1981,” he said. “The water was shallow and they found them when they were fishing.”

Mr. Choeun said locals would often roll on and grab hold of the bombs while playing in the water, but finally stopped about 10 years ago after military veterans familiar with the ordnance warned them of the dangers. The bombs were among the more than 500,000 tons of ordnance the U.S. dropped on Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s in its pursuit of North Vietnamese forces operating in the country.

Though CMAC has been ridding the country of old mines and ordnance for decades, it lacked the expertise to work underwater until a few years ago, when deminers received training funded by the U.S.

CMAC Director-General Heng Ratana could not be reached for comment. But on his Facebook page, he identified the two bombs as MK-82s, which measure about 2.2 meters long.

He also used the occasion to rail against the U.S. for continuing to insist that Cambodia pay back—with interest—the original $274 million it lent the country at the same time that it was carpet-bombing the eastern provinces. Many of the bombs failed to explode on impact and continue to kill and maim Cambodians every year.

“This kind of situation should be called: Big brother is collecting money while little brother has more fear, tragedy and death,” he wrote. “Due to the debt incurred from the war, the big banks apply conditions and economic pressure…. Cambodia is trying to get free from suffering, poverty and fear.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen has refused to repay any of the principal debt or interest because it was incurred by a prior government and has said the decision has effectively blocked Cambodia from accessing new loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Since Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in November, Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly reminded the public of the U.S.’s war-era bombing campaign in an apparent bid to shame Washington into canceling the debt. In response, the U.S. Embassy has repeated its call for Cambodia to repay the money.

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