Prime Minister Hun Sen has used an international conference to once again raise the issue of Cambodia’s war-era debt to the U.S. and attack the U.S. for killing children in wars waged in Cambodia and the Middle East.
While the government has yet to submit an official request to the U.S. to cancel the debt, Mr. Hun Sen took the opportunity of a captive audience of delegates from 36 countries in the Asia-Pacific region to launch another verbal assault.
“The U.S. created problems in my country and is demanding money from me,” Mr. Hun Sen said at the opening ceremony of the Asia-Pacific Regional Early Childhood Development Conference in Siem Reap province on Wednesday.
“They dropped bombs on our heads and then they ask us to repay. When we do not repay, they tell the IMF [International Monetary Fund] not to lend us money,” he said.
The conference is highlighting the issue of child labor and the need to improve children’s health care and nutrition. But in his opening speech, Mr. Hun Sen said children’s right to life should also be a topic of discussion, pouring specific scorn on the U.S.
“We should raise our voices to talk about the issue of the country that has invaded other [countries] and has killed children,” he said to the audience.
While the U.S. regularly criticizes other nations’ human rights records, the U.S. should review its own, in Cambodia and more recently in the Middle East, Mr. Hun Sen said.
“Now we need to count how many children’s lives have been taken each day in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Who did that?” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen said U.S. bombing killed and injured children in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos during the 1960s and 1970s.
“There are lot of grenades and bombs left. That’s why so often Cambodian children are killed, because they don’t know that they are unexploded ordnance,” he said. “And who did it? It’s America’s bombs and grenades.”
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on Wednesday, but U.S. Ambassador William Heidt said last month that from time to time, for reasons the U.S. didn’t fully understand, “the Cambodian government feels the need to publicly criticize the U.S.”
“I think that reflects some sort of political dynamic inside of Cambodia,” Mr. Heidt said on February 3, in response to a question about whether similar comments made earlier by Mr. Hun Sen would spoil U.S.-Cambodian relations.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said on Wednesday that Mr. Hun Sen’s statements were unlikely to find a receptive audience in Washington, and that Southeast Asia wasn’t even on the radar of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Cambodia is coming too late. I don’t think that argument will find any resonance in American policymakers right now,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Surrusco)
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