In 1975, the U.S. abandoned Cambodia’s Lon Nol government and the Khmer Rouge took power. What is less known is that at the time then-freshman U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., supported the evacuation of Vietnam and Cambodia. On April 25, 1975, the U.S. exited Cambodia. Sirik Matak Sisowath, the former Cambodian prime minister who refused to leave and who was killed by the Khmer Rouge days later, famously remarked: “I have only committed the mistake of believing in you [the Americans].”
While critics said that Biden’s recent Afghanistan policy was ad hoc and not well thought out, it is the same as his approach to Cambodia in the 1970s and is essentially unchanged.
The Biden administration’s recent sanctions on Cambodia must be viewed in this historical context. It is part of Biden’s mindset. It is based on misapplying the Afghanistan paradigm to an incomparable situation.
An independent and democratic country, Cambodia has been used as a pawn in Cold War politics. This includes Kissinger’s secret bombings of suspected communist bases and supply lines in Cambodia starting in 1969. The post-World War II Cambodian government was first a French-centric colony, then in a U.S.-centric period, then in a China-centric period, then in a Vietnam- centric period, and now arguably reverting back to a China-centric period. It is like a ping-pong ball. None of this was or is inevitable and reflects a misunderstanding of Cambodian politics.
A former French colony, Cambodia gained independence in 1953 under Norodom Sihanouk. In 1955, Sihanouk abandoned the throne to his father and was the head of government for 15 years in the “Sihanouk Era.”
After World War II, the U.S. provided economic support to Cambodia. From 1960-1970, Norodom Sihanouk was prime minister. Sihanouk has long had ties to China. The Sihanouk and Sisowath families are two of the eligible royal families in Cambodia. In May 1965, Cambodia broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. since Sihanouk wanted to be neutral during the Vietnam War.
From 1970-1975, the U.S. supported the coup against Sihanouk, who fled to Beijing and later supported the Khmer Rouge and the Lon Nol government (Khmer Republic). The U.S made a loan of $278 million to the Lon Nol government, which it is now claiming has doubled to be $500 million. Recently, the Biden administration has demanded repayment of this loan.
In 1975-1979, the U.S. condemned Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea. In the Cambodia-Vietnam War of 1979, Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power and installed a new government of which Hun Sen was a part.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. In 1985, Hun Sen was the prime minister. At age 33, he was the youngest prime minister in the world. Now, after 36 years, he is the longest-serving prime minister. Prior to that, at age 26, he had been the youngest foreign minister in the world. After that, Cambodia was in a civil war.
In 1991, the warring factions agreed to a ceasefire. In 1992-1993, the country was under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). In my opinion, UNTAC was a successful transition to elections and kept the peace.
In 1992, significantly, the U.S. ended an economic embargo of Cambodia and, in 1994, opened the U.S. mission in Phnom Penh.
From 1997 to the present, Hun Sen has been the prime minister of Cambodia. He is a genius who is a perfect ally for the U.S. His son who he has recently endorsed as his successor is a graduate of the United States Military Academy West Point. Hun Sen is part of an emerging democracy that is free-market capitalist. It is one of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which is historically (though less so recently) pro-Western and a political bloc that China is not part of. Under Hun Sen, Cambodia established a stock market. The World Bank says Cambodia has the most open foreign direct investment regime in ASEAN while Thailand has the most restrictive. Cambodia’s currency is the U.S. dollar.
On November 12, 2021, the Biden administration announced an arms embargo against Cambodia due to allegations of growing Chinese military influence and China’s “refurbishment” of the Ream Naval Base. Since the U.S. is not an important arms supplier to Cambodia, it is a pointless policy which comes at the same time as the U.S.’s boycott of China’s Olympics, another “paper tiger” which reflects more weakness than strength and is a way of appearing to do something when in fact it is nothing.
Hun Sen’s reaction to the embargo was to use the Afghan analogy–“a lot of those who use U.S. arms lost wars”– and he pointed to Afghanistan. Even before the embargo, on September 12, 2021, Hun Sen said the situation in Afghanistan evoked memories of when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975.
Cambodia could and should be a key ally of the U.S. But first, the U.S. has to understand how Hun Sen views the world. Under Vietnam, Cambodia has lost a lot of land area to Vietnam. The map shows the loss of Cambodia territory as the price of Vietnam’s occupation in the 1980s and also continuing into the 1990s. China provides a counterbalance to Vietnam’s threat to and incursions on Cambodian sovereignty and land area. The U.S. is not offering to protect Cambodia from Vietnam whereas China is. So, the U.S. is not giving Cambodia any choice. This is different from Thailand, which has never faced aggression from China or Vietnam because it is viewed as being under the security umbrella of the U.S. In 2003, under President George W. Bush, Thailand was named a key non-NATO ally along with Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, and Tunisia.
Hun Sen is the ideal leader to have constructive relations with China, Vietnam, and the U.S., the three countries that have influenced its postwar politics. Biden is still stuck in the “Afghanistan thinking” which has roots in his leading role in the U.S.’s evacuation of Cambodia in 1975. In fact, he owes a debt to Cambodia.
Biden needs to view Hun Sen as the future chairman of ASEAN, which is a political and economic competitor of China’s and which is made up of democratic countries. He is a masterly politician who seeks to be a key ally of the U.S. In 2006, the U.S. opened a large new modern embassy compound next to Wat Phnom.
Biden needs to build bridges with Cambodia and spend time with Hun Sen. Hun Sen is a “self-made man” who was a poor soldier who became prime minister. He is a nationalist who Biden needs to understand only wants to protect his country from numerous external threats. There is a valid reason for what he is doing.
The premise of the Biden embargo that Cambodia is under Chinese military control is false.
Cambodia is not a puppet state of China or any country.
The preamble to the Cambodian Constitution of 1993 (revised in 2008) states: “We, the people of Cambodia being the heirs of a great civilization, a prosperous, powerful, large and glorious nation whose prestige radiated like a diamond.”
Article 1 states that Cambodia should be “permanently neutral.” It notes that “the Kingdom of Cambodia shall be an independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country.”
Anyone who knows Hun Sen knows that he is no one’s puppet. He is a nationalist who will make whatever alliances are necessary to protect Cambodia’s independence. He knows that Cambodia needs to have good relations with China, Vietnam, and the United States.
Note from the above history that in 1992 the U.S.’s first move was ending an embargo against Cambodia. Imposing a new embargo now is a step backward with a friendly country. No one with any knowledge of Cambodia believes that the U.S. is not a friendly country and model for Cambodia and Hun Sen’s government.
Instead of this stupid embargo based on the “tempest in a teapot” which is Ream, Biden should 1) write off the U.S.’s contentious $500 million debt and 2) name Cambodia as a key non-NATO ally. Cambodia can then rest assured that, like Thailand, which is under no threat, Cambodia can count on U.S. protection and not be another Lon Nol government or Afghanistan which are the ghosts of Biden’s past.
The author Christopher Beres received his master’s degree in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. An expert on Cambodia, he has represented the Cambodian Government in international litigation.