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59 3 Reconstruction With Sihanouk’s fall, the Vietnam War, in the words of Arnold Isaacs, “fell on his helpless country like a collapsing brick wall.”1 Sustained and indiscriminate bombing, combined with brutal fighting between Lon Nol’s troops, the Vietnamese communists, and the Khmer Rouge, exacted a horrifying toll on Cambodia’s population, engendering a new expression: “The land is broken.”2 By war’s end, approximately one-third of the country’s bridges were destroyed, two-fifths of the road network was unusable, and the railroad was inoperable. Much of the country’s productive infrastructure, including its lone oil refinery near Kompong Som, had stopped working. Only 300 of 1,400 rice mills and 60 of 240 sawmills were functioning, and both timber and rubber production—Cambodia’s major prewar commercial products other than rice—had declined to only one-fifth of prewar production levels. Moreover, upwards of half of Cambodia’s livestock had been killed, either through fighting or bombing or as a food source for the starving people.3 Beyond the physical destruction, Cambodia’s economy was in ruin, shattered by misplaced foreign loans and governmental corruption that flourished in the waning months and years of the war. According to William Shawcross, the United States had begun selling to Cambodia surplus American agricultural products—wheat, flour, vegetable oil, tobacco, cotton—under the “Food for Peace” program. These commodities were purchased with Cambodian riel, which were then placed in a blocked account in Phnom Penh and used to pay the salaries of Lon Nol’s military . The “sale” of American agricultural commodities, therefore, not only undermined Cambodian farmers, but also financed a military that 60  •  From Rice Fields to Killing Fields was riven with corruption. Officers within the military padded their manpower lists with “ghost” soldiers, people who existed in name only. Estimates placed the number of phantom soldiers somewhere between forty and eighty thousand, representing up to two million dollars a month that ended up in the pockets of corrupt officers. And the landscape of Phnom Penh was a visual reminder of uncontrolled corruption. Haggard and orphaned children shared the streets of the capital with newly purchased Mercedes, Peugeots, Audis, and other luxury cars; starving and traumatized refugees begged in front of newly constructed villas that housed the corrupt generals and politicians.4 The specter of famine was ever present but unequally experienced throughout Cambodia. For many Cambodians, food was nonexistent, because of corruption, economic inefficiency, infrastructure collapse, and the destruction of farms and fields. For others, food was available—but unaffordable, because of rampant hyperinflation, exorbitant prices, and declining wages. American policies, likewise, directly led to malnutrition, starvation, and death. The United States, for example, consistently kept rice imports to a bare minimum, supposedly to prevent “food riots” among the starving people and to “encourage” greater domestic rice production. How the Cambodian peasantry, under constant aerial bombardment, was to plant and harvest rice was not specified.5 The proximate reason for the lack of food imported to Cambodia, however, was the result of deliberate political spin maneuvering of the Nixon administration. As the months dragged into years and the plight of Cambodia’s people steadily deteriorated, American officials refused to concede that they were losing yet another country to communism. Consequently , all talk of a “refugee problem” was drowned out by the rhetoric of an American and Lon Nol victory and the salvation of Cambodia from communism. Indeed, by keeping rice imports low, Washington was able to disguise the grave conditions endured by the masses of Cambodians. Isaacs is blunt in his conclusions: “Long after it was apparent to everyone else that civilian suffering was acute and growing worse, and that the Khmer government was neither competent enough nor concerned enough to do anything about it, American officials continued to deny any need for a major relief effort. From the start of the war almost to its end, Reconstruction  •  61 instead of food and medicine the US government supplied only a long list of statements declaring, in absolute contradiction to all the evidence, that Cambodia’s refugees were being adequately cared for.”6 Conditions for the sick and wounded—increasing daily as the war intensified—also worsened. Of the twenty-nine civilian hospitals that existed in 1970, only thirteen were operating a year later; the rest had been destroyed by ground fighting or by carpet-bombing campaigns. And of those hospitals still functioning, space and supplies were desperately short: patients slept on cots, rush...


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