Political scion and Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Sar Sokha became the latest official to join the uproar over Cambodia’s long-unpaid debt to the US, with analysts yesterday suggesting Cambodian officials’ repeated raising of the issue was driven by “domestic political consumption”.
In a Facebook post on April 4, Sokha – the son of Interior Minister Sar Kheng – echoed the premier’s position questioning the legitimacy of the half-a-billion-dollar debt given the destruction caused by the US’s 1970s bombardment of Cambodia. He also pointed to the fact the loan was paid to the US-backed Lon Nol regime – which came to power after a bloodless coup, and is therefore illegitimate, Cambodian officials contend.
“A debt of more than $500 million and the tragedy caused by the United States in the country cannot be settled with each other,” wrote Sokha.
The US loaned Cambodia $247 million in the 1970s to feed and clothe refugees fleeing to Phnom Penh, as US planes carpet bombed the countryside to target communist guerillas during the Second Indochina War. Past efforts to resolve the debt failed, leaving Cambodia now facing a $506 million bill, which it has refused to pay.
Despite little change to both countries’ positions, the issue has resurfaced recently, with Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly calling for the debt to be cancelled on at least three separate occasions since late December. Since then, Cambodian Mine Action Centre head Heng Ratana and CPP lawmaker and spokesman Suos Yara (in a letter to The Post) have also added their voices to the public chorus of criticism.
Speaking of the recent flurry of barbs directed at the US, regional expert Paul Chambers said that while Cambodia had a strong moral argument for debt forgiveness, the heavy focus on the issue by leaders was also meant for “domestic political consumption”, and as a way to “justify publicly” the government’s apparent shift away from the US and towards China.
“Why now? Such rhetoric is a distraction from the growing centralisation of power by the CPP in Cambodia,” Chambers said.
“At the same time, the rhetoric is growing as China continues to increase its financial assistance to Cambodia.”
Political analyst Ou Virak also cited Cambodia’s decision to scrap military cooperation programs with the US, saying the government was “pushing back” against Washington, and was motivated to some degree by a perception among some officials that the US wanted regime change in the Kingdom.
“There’s a deep distrust of America’s intention here in Cambodia,” he said.
Reached yesterday, government spokesman Phay Siphan said there was “no politics” behind talk of the debt, which he said should be transformed into a “humanitarian” project to clear up unexploded ordinance remaining from the war.