In Southeast Asia, the horror of Kissinger’s explosive legacy goes on

A US B-52 bomber flies over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

An American B-52 bomber flies over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesHong KongCNN — 

Fifty years after Henry Kissinger drove American foreign policy in Southeast Asia, the region continues to live with the fallout from the bombing and military campaigns backed by the former secretary of state, who died last week.

In Cambodia, unexploded ordnance left over from Vietnam War-era carpet bombings, orchestrated by Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, are among the remnants of war that continue to kill and maim adults and children, year after year.

The country of roughly 17 million is also still recovering from the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, the brutal, ousted government that experts say gained recruits buoyed by desperation in the country after the relentless American assaults.

“(Before the Americans) the countryside of Cambodia had never been bombed out … but (then) something would drop from the sky without warning and suddenly … explode the entire village,” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Documentation Center of Cambodia.

“When your village is bombed and you were told that it’s some Americans that dropped the bomb and when you lost your sister, your brothers, your parents … what is your choice? Be a victim and die by the bomb or fight back,” said Chhang, himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious “killing fields,” whose organization now documents the legacy of the genocidal regime.

Even today, the generation born after the Khmer Rouge may largely not be aware of the names or legacy or Kissinger and Nixon, Chhang added, “but (they know) the history of the B52 (bombers) and the American involvement in Cambodia.”

Kissinger’s death at the age of 100 last week has placed back into the spotlight the actions of the controversial titan of American diplomacy, with some of the starkest critiques coming from Southeast Asia, where the US was already at war when Nixon took office in 1969.

Kissinger, who served as his national security advisor and later secretary of state, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role brokering a ceasefire that ended US involvement in the war in Vietnam – and came on the heels of heavy US bombing across northern Vietnam.

But documents declassified in recent decades have shown an unvarnished picture of the closed-door calculations that saw Kissinger and Nixon ramping up covert bombings across Cambodia and extending a secret war in Laos as they sought to choke off North Vietnamese supply lines and quash Communist movements in the countries.

It’s not known how many people died during this time in Cambodia and Laos, which were officially neutral in the war, but historians say the number could be well over 150,000 in Cambodia alone.

Documents have also revealed what analysts say was the role of Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford and Kissinger in signaling America’s approval of Indonesian President Suharto’s bloody 1975 invasion of East Timor, estimated to have left at least 100,000 dead.

“Kissinger and Nixon saw the world in terms of getting the kinds of outcomes that they wanted – people who were in weaker or marginalized positions, they didn’t really matter that much. So the fact that they were made unwilling pawns, the fact that they became literally cannon fodder, was of no consequence,” said political scientist Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

“This sort of action does have a cost on the US more broadly – a lot of the continuing skepticism and suspicion about the US and US intentions was born out of actions such as what Kissinger and Nixon had engaged in.”

Casualties continue

From October 1965 to August 1973, the United States dropped at least 2,756,941 tons of ordnance over Cambodia, a country roughly the size of the US state of Missouri. That’s more than the Allies dropped during World War II, according to an account by Yale University historian Ben Kiernan.

Such ordnance in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, as well as landmines and other explosives from the decades of conflict that followed in the destabilized region, continue to pose a grave risk to people living there.


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Nearly 20,000 people have been killed by mines and unexploded ordnance between 1979 and this past August in Cambodia, with more than 65,000 injured or killed since 1979, according to government data. Most of those casualties are from landmines, but more than a fifth are victims of other kinds of leftover explosives, which include those from American campaigns, experts say.

During the first eight months of this year, four people were killed, 14 injured, and 8 needed amputations due to explosives, according to government data. Experts say the devastation – which is especially acute for people in rural areas – will go on for years to come.

“Twenty, thirty percent of everything shot fired and dropped from an airplane doesn’t work … we’re going to be dealing with that stuff over here for probably 100 years. That’s Kissinger’s legacy,” said Bill Morse, president of the nonprofit Landmine Relief Fund, which supports organizations including Cambodia Self-Help Demining.

That group works not just to diffuse explosives, but also train people to recognize them. Morse says children across the country are often familiar with how to identify landmines largely planted from years of regional fighting, but may be less aware of the range of unexploded ordnance, often from American operations, which continue to drive injuries and deaths.

“In the eastern part of the country, kids find cluster munitions that were dropped by (the US). They play catch with it and it blows up 10 year old children … (unexploded ordnance) are where the injuries are coming from now,” he said.

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politician and diplomat Le Duc Tho at the signing the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which ended US involvement in the war.

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politician and diplomat Le Duc Tho at the signing the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which ended US involvement in the war.MPI/Getty Images

Disputed legacy

Kissinger is widely seen as shrugging off responsibility for wartime decisions and the toll of the campaign in Cambodia, which government documents indicate he helped devise. One journal entry from Nixon’s chief of staff describes Kissinger as “really excited” as the bombing campaign got underway in 1969.

In a 2014 interview with American radio broadcaster NPR, the diplomat deflected criticism when asked about the bombings in Cambodia and Laos, instead arguing that the B-52 campaigns were less deadly for civilians than the drone attacks in the Middle East ordered by US President Barack Obama.

“The decisions that were taken would almost certainly have been taken by those of you who are listening, faced with the same set of problems. And you would have done them with anguish, as we did them with anguish,” he said at the time.

Today, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia government-run agencies and other groups continue to work to remove explosive remnants of war, with experts saying the US government has become the world’s biggest funder of unexploded ordinance and landmine clearance in the world.

But aid groups who are also working on the issue say that the US and other countries shouldn’t lose sight of the on-going consequences of conflict in the region.

“There is particular concern that funding for dealing with the aftermath of historic conflicts in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world might be jeopardized if funds are diverted to address new conflict-related crises,” a spokesperson from the United Kingdom-based Mines Advisory Group, which clears explosives in countries including Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, told CNN.

“The global community has a moral responsibility to all those in the world whose lives continue to be blighted by the impact of wars that ended before many of them were even born.”

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