“We stand here, in the middle of this city, and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell,” U.S. President Barack Obama said on May 27, during his historic visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
As the first sitting American President to visit the city where the U.S. launched the first atomic bomb attack, Obama used his speech to address a world where the risk of man-made catastrophe remains. In post-conflict countries like Cambodia, observers say, Obama’s speech had great resonance and contained an important message about building a peaceful future.
The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and the city of Nagasaki toward the end of World War II are together estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people. Although many argue that the attacks were a necessary measure to bring an end the global conflict, 71 years later, the event remains a traumatic scar that deeply marks its survivors, and humanity at large.
American bombs did not stop falling in Asia in 1945, however. While nuclear weapons were not used during the conflict, the scale of bombing during the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War, was enormous.
Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped close to 3 million tons of ordnance on Cambodia alone, mostly using B-52 bomber planes. The ariel bombardment may have killed more than 150,000 Cambodians, according to historians Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan. The scholars with the Yale University Genocide Studies Program have described Cambodia as “the most heavily bombed country in history.”
During his speech, Obama put Hiroshima in the context of all human conflict, in which, he said, “at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.”
He honored the thousands of Japanese and Koreans, and 12 American prisoners of war, who died at Hiroshima. “Their souls speak to us,” he said. “They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.”
In Cambodia, many argue the cries of the dead have not yet been adequately heard. Following years of deadly American bombing, Cambodia eventually fell into the hands of the communists of the Khmer Rouge, who orchestrated a genocide that shocked mankind. The Khmer Rouge put to death almost 2 million Cambodians through execution, forced labor, malnutrition and disease between April 1975 and January 1979.
As Obama also said, “We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”
“President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was not only historic, but it also prompted a helpful debate in the United States and Japan about the continuing legacy of World War II and the current state of U.S.-Japanese relations,” said Jay Raman, public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. “The President’s remarks are a powerful reminder of the need for all people and all nations to work together for the cause of peace.”
Cambodia’s leading nongovernmental organization concerned with documenting the Khmer Rouge regime’s atrocities, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has worked to the motto, “Dealing with the past, moving into the future.”
“A society cannot know itself if it does not have accurate memory of its own history,” said the center’s executive director, Youk Chhang.
Obama also gave a warning about the stories nations tell themselves, and the power struggles, nationalism and racism that cause political instability. “Nations arise, telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats, but those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different,” he said.
In the context of modern Cambodia, observers see risks. Authorities have been accused of intimidating the opposition with politically motivated prosecutions, but also with violent attacks on lawmakers. Most recently, legal cases that have called for opposition leader Kem Sokha to be arrested have led to dark warnings over potential violence.
As a post-conflict country, Cambodia is “very vulnerable” to repeat outbreaks of violence, said David Chandler, an authoritative Western historian on Cambodia. “Cambodia does not operate under the rule of law, and violence often goes not only unpunished but repeated,” he told VOA Khmer by email.
Chandler believes that Cambodian leaders today have not made adequate efforts at self-reflection. “The leaders are pretty unreflective and have not changed any of their ideas,” he wrote, adding that “they don’t think globally or consider themselves part of world history.”
Cambodia’s outward appearance of a country at peace belies an incomplete and fragile peace, said Ly Sok-Kheang of the Anlong Veng Peace Center, a recently established center working toward reconciliation in the last northern hold out of the Khmer Rouge.
The country remains susceptible to violence as long as leaders go on politicizing past grievances, and as long as fear remains in people’s minds, he added.
“Political forgiveness is important if peace is to be maintained,” said Ly Sok-Kheang.
In Hiroshima, Obama told the world that “every act of aggression between nations; every act of terror and corruption and cruelty and oppression that we see around the world shows our work is never done.”
The dropping of the atomic bomb should be remembered, he said, “not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.”