Foreign Minister Hor Namhong met yesterday with a senior American diplomat to resume negotiations on the Kingdom’s Lon Nol-era debt, a long-time sticking point between the two countries that Prime Minister Hun Sen described last year as a “dirty debt”.
The visit by Joseph Yun, the United States deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, follows a pledge to address the issue made by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton during her trip to the Kingdom last year.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Hor Namhong had requested that the US drop the interest rate on the Kingdom’s US$445 million debt from 3 percent to 1 percent annually, and to allow 70 percent of the sum to be redirected to development projects.
“We have to find a point that can be agreed upon by all so that the process can move ahead,” Koy Kuong said, adding that Yun “agreed that the negotiations between Cambodia and the US will continue until we have an agreement”.
Clinton said in November that the debt required “immediate attention”, and that she would move the issue “up the ladder of priorities” for Washington. At the time, she, too suggested that some of the debt could be re-routed to development assistance.
“You could have some repayment, you could have debt for nature, you could have debt for education,” she said. “There are things that the government of Cambodia could do that would satisfy the need to demonstrate some level of accountability but, more importantly, to invest those funds in the needs of the people of Cambodia.”
Cambodian officials have long called for the debt to be cancelled in view of the disastrous effects of the American bombing campaign conducted during Lon Nol’s time on office. In a speech in September, Prime Minister Hun Sen called the sum a “dirty debt” that was used to fund bombs “dropped on our heads”.
The US dropped 2,756,941 tons of ordnance in Cambodia during the period, according to historians Ben Kiernan and Owen Taylor, at a cost some have estimated at $7 billion.
Yun was unavailable for comment, though American embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said in an email that the US hoped to see an agreement “soon” on what he called “a longstanding bilateral issue”.
“Such an agreement would enhance Cambodia’s creditworthiness and ability to access international capital markets,” Wenig said. “Under international law, governments are generally responsible for the obligations of their predecessors.”
The Kingdom’s overall debt was estimated at US$3.2 billion as of 2009, according to the International Monetary Fund.