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Cambodia and US resume search for Vietnam War dead

More than 40 American MIAs are still missing in Cambodia, according to the US embassy in Phnom Penh
US servicemen drape the American flag over one of six coffins containing the possible remains of US servicemen that are missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Dec. 4, 1995.

US servicemen drape the American flag over one of six coffins containing the possible remains of US servicemen that are missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Dec. 4, 1995. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 12, 2024 10:50 AM GMT
Updated: March 12, 2024 11:28 AM GMT

Cambodia and the United States are resuming their search for the remains of American servicemen killed during the Vietnam War after a one-year suspension was imposed by former prime minister Hun Sen amid deteriorating diplomatic relations.

The resumption also followed a meeting between Prime Minister Hun Manet and Ann Mills-Griffiths, chief executive officer for the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which has backed the search program for the past 32 years.

“This is a humanitarian gesture and expresses deep sympathy for the families of missing American soldiers. Cambodia clearly divides humanitarian work from political issues,” she said in a statement released by the official Agence Kampuchea Presse.

According to the US embassy in Phnom Penh, more than 40 American servicemen are listed as Missing in Action (MIA) in Cambodia and the remains of another 42 have been returned. A further 1,500 are still missing in Vietnam and some have been classified as “non-recoverable.”

Hun Sen suspended the search after Washington stopped issuing some visas for his citizens in response to a refusal by Phnom Penh to accept Cambodians with criminal convictions who were to be deported from the US.

Ties have also been strained by the jailing of 60 political activists and bans on political parties from contesting elections which ensured the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) held its grip on power at general elections last year, enabling Hun Manet to replace his father as prime minister.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ket Sophann said Hun Sen had offered to resume cooperation in a letter on March 8 sent to US Senator Doug Ericksen and Representative Vincent Buys despite the visa curbs that had “unjustly sanctioned” Cambodia.

“As we have discussed before and at your personal request as well as that made by other US organizations, my government, in the same compassionate spirit, agreed to resume this important POW/MIA field mission,” the letter read in part.

Ket Sophann also told Reuters news agency that "the letter talks to this itself, especially the words: it is the reflection of our deep empathy with the families."

The letter sent by Hun Sen was in response to a request made in writing by Ericksen on Oct. 2 last year seeking reactivation of the program.

Hun Manet said his government would continue to provide coordination and cooperation “with all stakeholders to successfully carry out the search and excavation missions for the missing American remains.”

The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, ended in 1975 with the communist annexation of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Efforts to account for MIAs and the remains of those killed in action began about a decade later.

A delegation from the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia has also met with government officials in Vientiane and Hanoi.

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