DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Cambodian government owes the United States about $500 million for a food loan taken out during the Vietnam War. Cambodia says it's not paying. The United States says a loan is a loan. Michael Sullivan has more from Phnom Penh.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In early 1970, with the war in Vietnam going badly, President Nixon went on national television to tell the American people about his decision to send U.S. troops into neighboring Cambodia to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines and deny the enemy sanctuary there.
(SOUNBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICHARD NIXON: This is not an invasion of Cambodia. The areas in which these attacks will be launched are completely occupied and controlled by North Vietnamese.
SULLIVAN: He promised U.S. forces would withdraw soon, and they did. But the U.S. carpet bombing of the Cambodian countryside continued for years, displacing huge numbers of farmers and leaving many civilian dead or wounded, too.
PRAK NARUN: (Speaking Khmer).
SULLIVAN: Sixty-nine-year-old Prak Narun says the Americans would start bombing early around 7 a.m. and again around noon.
PRAK: (Speaking Khmer).
SULLIVAN: "The Vietnamese soldiers were here," she says, "but they knew when the planes were coming and fled to the forest. So it was only the Khmer villagers who would die," she says, including her sister and her newborn daughter. Human rights activist Ou Virak, founder of Future Forum.
OU VIRAK: The U.S. destroy part of the country, bomb tens and tens of thousands of tons, destroying pretty much the whole eastern part of the country - destroy much of the food supply, the farmland.
SULLIVAN: And that's where the loan from the U.S. comes in. With no way to feed their people, the Cambodian government asked for and received roughly $270 million for badly needed food aid for those fleeing the bombing and the advancing Khmer Rouge. Most of the displaced ended up in Phnom Penh, which fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you for coming to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. You've just entered a place of nightmares.
SULLIVAN: That five-year-long nightmare left an estimated 1.7 million people dead. And some say the U.S. bombing and the instability that followed may have helped create that monstrous regime. Ou Virak.
VIRAK: Did it contribute to the rise of the Khmer Rouge? The answer is yes. Was it responsible for the Khmer Rouge taking power in 1975? That's what scholars disagree on.
SULLIVAN: What almost everyone does agree on is that forcing Cambodia to repay the food debt is churlish at best.
ELIZABETH BECKER: This is horrendous.
SULLIVAN: Elizabeth Becker is a former New York Times journalist who witnessed the bombing campaign and wrote the book, "When The War Was Over."
BECKER: We have not acknowledged the damage we've done to that country, the enormous damage. So the idea that we're now asking them to pay for a small bit of food aid is crazy. That the United States has to acknowledge the - in my book, you acknowledge the damage you've done and you make true reparations, which we haven't.
SULLIVAN: Cambodia's authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen is having fun with this story, one rekindled after remarks by the U.S. ambassador to local journalists earlier this year questioning the Cambodian government's reluctance to pay.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER HUN SEN: (Speaking Khmer).
SULLIVAN: Here's Hun Sen in February telling President Trump not to ask the Cambodian people for money. "You're the ones who bombed us," he said, "why are you asking us to pay?"
The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh declined an interview on tape, but in an email spokesman Jay Raman noted that the U.S. has provided more than a billion dollars in development assistance to Cambodia since the early 1990s. But, Raman added, we lack the legal authority to write off debts for countries that are able but unwilling to pay. Those legal authorities do not change from one administration to the next, absent an action from Congress. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Phnom Penh.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTS OUT ASIA'S "THE EYE OF ALL STORMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.