Dr Milton Osborne is a former Australian diplomat and author, most recently, of Pol Pot Solved the Leprosy Problem. Milton Osborne’s early experience in Australia’s Phnom Penh embassy shaped the rest of his life, which remains centred on Southeast Asia. From 1959-61, he worked there as a young diplomat. Later as an academic, he continued work along the Thai-Cambodia border as a consultant to the UNHCR and the “Cambodian Refugee Problem”. On Wednesday 13 June 2018 Milton Osborne addressed The Sydney Institute to look back and recall both the old Cambodia and the traumatic years to come.
POL POT SOLVED THE LEPROSY CRISIS
I imagine many here present will have already parsed the essential meaning of my book’s title – the grim and fatal fate of Cambodia’s lepers. For, whatever was the case for some ideologically blind commentators in the 1970s, we all now know the character of the Khmer Rouge regime. The title is, in fact, based on something said to me in August 1981, when I returned to Cambodia after a long absence and visited Batambang city in the country’s northwest.
In Battambang, I met Dr Ly Po, a rare medical survivor of the Pol Pot years who was in charge of both the city’s hospital and the provinces health services. Recounting his experiences during Khmer Rouge rule, he described being imprisoned with 480 others in a regime jail; he was one of 50 who survived. In the course of a tour of the hospital, which to my surprise included being admitted to the operating theatre where an appendectomy was in progress, Ly Po told me of the problems he faced: a lack of secure funding, a shortage of supplies and the continuing challenge of a high rate of tuberculosis. But he did not have to worry about leprosy. For, he remarked sombrely, “The Pol Pot government solved the leprosy problem: they killed all the lepers.”
Recounting his experiences during Khmer Rouge rule, he described being imprisoned with 480 others in a regime jail; he was one of 50 who survived.
Visiting Battambang in 1981, and meeting Dr Ly Po, reflected my association with Cambodia that had begun more than two decades previously. For in 1959, aged 22 and to my great surprise, I was posted to the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh as the mission’s third secretary to live and work in Phnom Penh for nearly two and half years.
To say that my posting to Cambodia was “life changing” sounds like pop psychology, but it’s true. In an Australian mission with a total of three staff – ambassador, secretary-typist and me – I lived in a world that blended Asian exoticism and the very apparent aftermath of French colonialism – French as a language of government, the French ambassador accorded a special status above all other heads of mission, baguettes to be found even in the country’s most remote areas. Because the Australian embassy was so small, I had responsibilities far above my junior status, including quite long periods as chargé d’affaires, which meant that I frequently mixed with Cambodian ministers and senior officials.
I lived in a world that blended Asian exoticism and the very apparent aftermath of French colonialism – French as a language of government, the French ambassador accorded a special status above all other heads of mission, baguettes to be found even in the country’s most remote areas.
The early 1960s were a time when Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former king, dominated his country’s politics and exemplified his country’s distinctive character. He could quote Racine’s poetry or discourse on the virtues of paté de foie gras while governing as an essentially untrammelled oriental ruler. He regarded his subjects as “children” who deserved no role in setting the course of the state. And he brooked no challenge to his leadership. Little noticed by his Western admirers, particularly those on the European left – Han Suyin immediately comes to mind – his security services were ruthless in pursuit of those – mostly leftists – he believed threatened his rule.
He could quote Racine’s poetry or discourse on the virtues of paté de foie gras while governing as an essentially untrammelled oriental ruler. He regarded his subjects as “children” who deserved no role in setting the course of the state.
For me, Phnom Penh and its government were objects of wondrous fascination, while the city was also a jumping off point to the incomparable temples of Angkor and to the sharply different world of Saigon and society of South Vietnam, where there were already major security concerns, as well as a very different experience of French colonialism.
It was all a heady mix that led me, after much hesitation, to decide that I wanted to learn more about the historical background to Cambodia and South Vietnam and how this history related to the present. This led to a decision that led me to become a graduate student at Cornell and to an affiliation with its renowned Southeast Asia Program.
The consequences of becoming an over-aged and underpaid graduate student in my late twenties were many and varied: the chance to live and carry out research in Paris for eight months, and then to continue my research in Phnom Penh and Saigon; repeated visits back to Cambodia and Vietnam through the 1960s until 1971; eventually to two periods, in 1980 and 1981 of consulting for UNHCR in relation to the “Cambodian Refugee Problem”; and ultimately to experiencing a privileged visit to Vietnam and Cambodia in 1981 that included a lengthy one-on-one interview with Nguyen Co Thach, the Vietnamese foreign minister who at that stage was central to the resolution – or rather the lack of it – of the post-Communist victory problems besetting what used to be called Indochina.
I have written about some of these years in other books, in particular about Cambodia politics in 1966 in my book, Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy (1979, new edition 2004, still in print). That I was able to write the latter book in the form that I did reflected the fact that I had kept a daily journal in both Cambodia and Vietnam in 1966. And I continued this practice in each of my subsequent visits to Cambodia and Vietnam, including the visits I made in 1981 to which I referred a moment ago.
So, when in this new book I write in some detail of what I saw and heard, these are reflections of the daily entries from the time. I don’t pretend that the records of conversations that appear in my new book are reproduced verbatim, though I do claim that they are accurate, particularly when it comes to recording key phrases and observations. Let me cite a couple of examples in addition to Dr Ly Po’s revealing comment about leprosy.
I don’t pretend that the records of conversations that appear in my new book are reproduced verbatim, though I do claim that they are accurate, particularly when it comes to recording key phrases and observations.
In the book, I record a lengthy conversation I had with Colonel Ken MacKenzie, second-in-command of the Australian Task Force at Nui Dat in Phuoc Thuy province when I visited the Task Force in December 1969. In providing a highly sceptical assessment of the capabilities of the Task Force to achieve its goals in Phuoc Thuy, it was MacKenzie himself who used the term “Gilbertian” to describe a situation in which protective bunkers around villages near Nui Dat were being blown up by insurgents coming from within these villages. And I know I am accurate in recording the essentials of the conversation I had with the self-appointed “ruler” of one of the unofficial Cambodian refugee camps near the Thai-Cambodia border in January 1980.
A former teak smuggler, claiming without any justification the title of a military “marshal”, Vann Saren had temporarily gained control of some tens of thousands of his hapless compatriots with the help of a few hundred armed bully boys. He received visitors dressed incongruously in a pork pie hat with a large cross hanging from a necklace of pearls. Aided by a voluble assistant who claimed, also falsely, to be a member of the Cambodian royal family, Vann Saren touted his supposed plans to rout the Vietnamese who had toppled the Khmer Rouge. What was needed he told me, was financial support to the tune of $800 million from “all the Western nations”. And so far as Australia was concerned, I was to “tell your prime minister Mr Andrew of our need for aid”. When I explained that Mr Fraser was in fact Australia’s prime minister Vann Saren was unabashed, saying, “Then tell Mr Fraser and Mr Andrew of our needs.”
A former teak smuggler, claiming without any justification the title of a military “marshal”, Vann Saren had temporarily gained control of some tens of thousands of his hapless compatriots with the help of a few hundred armed bully boys.
In very briefly outlining the periods I spent in Cambodia and Vietnam over two decades and consulting for UNHCR, I have barely scratched the surface of my experiences, and in particular the time I spent in South Vietnam as a house guest of Senator Le Tan Buu in 1968-69 and then in 1971 – periods I have not written about previously. This association led to my meeting, talking to and travelling the length and breadth of South Vietnam with Generals Tran Van Don and Ton That Dinh in the course of their efforts to assess the security situation in towns away from Saigon – during a six-week period in 1968-69 I made 16 helicopter and 17 fixed wing flights in military aircraft. Generals Don and Dinh, you will remember, were two of the key figures in the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. By 1968 both were politicians.
during a six-week period in 1968-69 I made 16 helicopter and 17 fixed wing flights in military aircraft. Generals Don and Dinh, you will remember, were two of the key figures in the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963
Neither have I written previously in any detail about the assistance given to me on an unofficial basis by the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATV) in 1968-69. My reference earlier to the observations of Colonel Ken Mackenzie related to an official visit. The briefings I received from Lieutenant Colonel Russell Lloyd of the AATV and the opportunity I was given to spend the night, at Nam Hoa, an outpost west of Hue in 1969 commanded by Major Gordon Brown, were the result of deeply appreciated unofficial assistance, and I write about this assistance in some detail in my book.
Let me now step back and say a something about how I came to write this book. As I explain in some detail in my “Prologue”, this book has had a long gestation. Some years ago, as I reflected on the material I had recorded in my daily journals, I was struck by the fact that there was no similar store of material relating to my father’s life. An academic at the University of Sydney, his was a life characterised by an enthusiasm for field geology, for overseas travel with deeply prized associations with Cambridge University, and a passion for classical music, including as a performer himself on the pipe organ. Yet little of this life was captured in the obituaries at the time of his early death, and not much more in the entry devoted to him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. This thought, and a reflection of the fact that much of what I had experienced occurred before my daughter was born, led me to think of writing a manuscript that drew on my journals and was, at least in its earliest form, a long letter to my daughter, and even now in a much expanded form it may still be seen as such.
This thought, and a reflection of the fact that much of what I had experienced occurred before my daughter was born, led me to think of writing a manuscript that drew on my journals
Before I began writing this “long letter” I discussed my tentative thoughts with my lifelong friend Jill Ker Conway, a notable memorialist with her book, The Road from Coorain, whose very recent death is a cause for great personal sadness. I was encouraged by her suggestions that I should, indeed, put my experiences down on paper. And when I did so I received further encouragement from David Chandler who read and commented on an early draft. I first met David in Phnom Penh in 1960, when he was posted to the American embassy. He has remained a friend and become the preeminent historian of modern Cambodia.
The book that has finally emerged from a prolonged gestation is episodic in character, largely concerned with Cambodia and Vietnam but with two chapters that are removed from direct association with those two countries. One deals with Papua New Guinea, where I spent nearly three months as an intern in Port Moresby and Rabaul between my third and fourth year as an undergraduate. The other recounts my time living and carrying out research in Paris in 1965-66. In the case of my short experience of living in PNG it was long enough for me to understand the fundamentals of colonial relationships, which what I wrote about in my Cornell dissertation. And as for living in Paris, at the very least I could only benefit from experiencing life in the Métropole as I sought to understand earlier French colonial attitudes. And these were attitudes that had been held until quite recently. It was, after all, General de Gaulle who at the end of the war in Europe stated that “If Indochina does not belong to us, to whom could it belong!”
It was, after all, General de Gaulle who at the end of the war in Europe stated that “If Indochina does not belong to us, to whom could it belong!”
My understanding of French politics came in many ways. So, I recount benefitting from the affection Madame Vanoit the patronne of my pension in Paris had for Anglo-Saxons – she classified me as such – and who therefore told me I could use the pension’s shower wherever I wanted without having to pay for it – French pensonnaires were allowed one free shower a week; after that they had to pay. The reasons for this welcome benefit reflected the fact that Madame Vanoit had fought with les tommies as a résistante, une vraie résistante, and not une résistane de la dernière heure, during the Second World War. She remained deeply grateful to her comrades in arms and was an admirer of Winston Churchill while despising Charles de Gaulle for his failure to acknowledge British assistance during the war.
In another event connected to the Second World War, in November 1965 I, by chance, witnessed the final day of a key trial of a collaborator who had been on the run since 1944. This was at a time when France was still not ready to face the complex facts of life under the German occupation. It was a trial that ended, as I watched, with the accused, Jacques Vasseur being sentenced to death.
This was at a time when France was still not ready to face the complex facts of life under the German occupation. It was a trial that ended, as I watched, with the accused, Jacques Vasseur being sentenced to death.
On a very much more positive note, it was in Paris that I first encountered material relating to the French Mekong River Expedition in the 1860s, a subject that had never been written about in depth in English. Ten years later I was able to tell the story of that expedition, with its high hopes, partial failure and human rivalries in my book River Road to China, which is still in print today.
Since so many years are covered in this book, and while the events discussed are so varied, let me draw your attention to just some of the key issues I treat. First, there is an overarching theme that runs through the book, the sharp contrast between what I saw happening in Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1960s. Until 1967, Sihanouk had some justification in describing Cambodia as “an oasis of peace”. By contrast, when I spent a month in Saigon in 1963 the challenges facing the Saigon regime were already sharply apparent, not least in the Battle of Ap Bac, which clearly revealed the strength of communist insurgents and the problems besetting the South Vietnamese Army. The battle led to a rapid increase in American involvement in the developing Vietnam War.
The month I spent in Saigon in 1963 was also of fundamental importance for me in personal terms and to how I thought then and later about the war. While I saw much to criticise about the way in which the Saigon regime and its principal backer, the United States, as well as Australia, prosecuted the war, I never joined the chorus of critics who were in favour of abandoning resistance to Hanoi. In part, this unfashionable view stemmed, initially, from my meeting and holding frequent discussions with a relatively minor South Vietnamese official, named Duong Sanh, who was in charge of the National Library where I was researching Vietnam’s history. I explain this issue in greater detail in the book, along with my growing conviction that not only was there no simple solution to the developing Vietnam war but to dismiss Duong Sanh and his compatriots as somehow worthless both personally and strategically was immoral.
I never joined the chorus of critics who were in favour of abandoning resistance to Hanoi.
Let me continue to identify events and experiences that I think are of particular interest. In Cambodia, in 1966, I met for the first time Wilfred Burchett and as I record in some detail dined with him one evening to hear his unqualified support for the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. An engaging conversationalist he was never the “independent” journalist as his admirers claimed – if his admirers had looked at his unwavering support for the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe he had written about long before he became involved in Vietnam, their attitudes surely should have been qualified. In Cambodia in 1966, he played his part as a propagandist for the Vietnamese communist cause. When Western journalists were allowed into Cambodia and sought him out, he was emphatic in denying there were any Vietnamese communist forces enjoying sanctuary in Cambodia. If anyone knew the falsity of this claim it was Burchett himself.
When Western journalists were allowed into Cambodia and sought him out, he was emphatic in denying there were any Vietnamese communist forces enjoying sanctuary in Cambodia. If anyone knew the falsity of this claim it was Burchett himself.
Jumping forward to 1969-70 and, as noted previously, I record my experiences travelling with Tran Van Don and his associates. Earlier this year, there was considerable media attention given to the 1968 Tet Offensive; it’s worth remembering that the war went on long after that event. As I travelled with and talked to Don, he genuinely seemed to believe that there was a possibility of rallying the population to confront the communists and to reach some kind of settlement that would preserve South Vietnam’s non-communist identity. Yet there was little in the dubiously accurate briefings we received in town after town to justify this view, and I was struck by the blunt assessment of another former general who travelled with us, Nguyen Van Chuan, when he said without qualification, “We are losing the war.”
This was a view that I heard with a range of qualifications in 1968-69 and again in 1970, with one of the most astute commentators on the war, the American anthropologist Gerald Hickey, telling me in January 1971 that the overriding wish among the population was for peace, almost at any cost. Certainly, it is worth recording that there was a range of opinions among the serving Australian military that little progress was being made. This was a view, as I record, at odds with that of the Australian ambassador at the time.
In Cambodia, another war was sparked by Sihanouk’s overthrow in March 1970 and the determination of left-wing Cambodian forces, aided by substantial North Vietnamese assistance to bring down the Phnom Penh regime led by Lon Nol. The tragic outcome of this war was the triumph of Khmer Rouge forces in April 1975 and the establishment of a tyranny of epic proportions. It also meant, for me, the loss of all but one of my close Cambodian friends.
The tragic outcome of this war was the triumph of Khmer Rouge forces in April 1975 and the establishment of a tyranny of epic proportions. It also meant, for me, the loss of all but one of my close Cambodian friends.
Three years ago, I spoke at The Sydney Institute, about the disgraceful failure of supporters of progressive causes to recognise what was happening in Cambodia under Pol Pot and his associates’ rule, despite the evidence readily available that something awful was happening. It is sufficient to say tonight that only purblind adherence to ideological convictions explains this retreat from rationality.
The invasion of Cambodia beginning on Christmas Eve 1978 by Vietnamese forces that defeated the Pol Pot administration in January 1979 was a prelude to my becoming involved in what came to be called “The Cambodian refugee problem”. In 1979, as the euphoria of liberation from the Pol Pot regime faded in Cambodia, and there seemed the prospect of famine, tens of thousands of Cambodians streamed into Thailand, so that by the end of the year about 150,000 were being accommodated in camps under the supervision of UNHCR. In addition, as referred to earlier, there were at least 250,000 Cambodians located in squalid border camps – the official term was border agglomerations – just over the border from Thailand. There was no certainty about numbers and it may be that total in border camps was closer to 400,000.
UNHCR was remarkably successful in establishing its camps, with Khao-I-Dang sheltering over 90,000 refugees, but it had no real sense of why the Cambodians had made their decision to flee their country and what would lead to their returning. So, it was that in January 1980 the top UNHCR official, Zia Rizvi, asked me as a person long connected with Cambodia to undertake a survey that might answer these questions.
In my book, I describe how I went about my task, carrying out my survey in the official camps while seeking as well to gauge opinion in the border camps. The results of my survey, which tried to take account of Cambodia’s pre-1975 demographic character, gave a clear answer to one of UNHCR’s concerns: so long as the Vietnamese dominated Cambodia there was little interest in returning. But more striking was the emphatic evidence my survey provided of the cost of the Khmer Rouge regime’s brutal policies. Among the one hundred individuals interviewed in detail for the survey, 40 reported the execution of close family members to a total of 80 persons; no fewer than 42 persons reported having seen executions taking place. In short, my survey gave little hope that there would be any quick end of the presence of refugees in Thailand. And a second, much less detailed, survey that I carried out the following year reinforced this view. As I told UNHCR, a solution to the refugee crisis was only possible if there was a political settlement in Cambodia.
The results of my survey, which tried to take account of Cambodia’s pre-1975 demographic character, gave a clear answer to one of UNHCR’s concerns: so long as the Vietnamese dominated Cambodia there was little interest in returning.
The final part of my book – apart from a brief concluding chapter and two Epilogues – deals with my visits to Vietnam and Cambodia in 1981. After being repeatedly rebuffed by the Vietnamese embassy in Canberra in my requests for a visa, I was told I could have one if I joined the Australia Vietnam Friendship Association. Then I was suddenly told I could go to both Hanoi and the former Saigon and that every effort would be made to accommodate my wishes. And, I was further told, the Vietnamese government, although it was not the government of Cambodia, would try to facilitate my visit to that latter country.
The Vietnamese honoured their word, facilitating a visit to the border region that had suffered during the Chinese invasion of February 1979 and arranging a one-on-one interview with Nguyen Co Thach that I describe in detail in the book. It’s worth noting one of the several cogent points he made during that interview. Thach’s observation was that, “They are clever people in Singapore, more clever than you Australians when it comes to mixing trade and politics.” He made this comment after observing, accurately, that ASEAN was far from united in its proclaimed opposition to Vietnam’s control of Cambodia and, in Singapore’s case, its public criticism of the Hanoi government.
Thach’s observation was that, “They are clever people in Singapore, more clever than you Australians when it comes to mixing trade and politics.”
Hanoi in 1981 was a dour city but it’s fair to say that my interlocutors, including Thach, were frank and, within their own political framework, largely straightforward in their presentations. This was not the case in Ho Chi Minh City where officials wanted to dwell on their efforts aimed at “transforming the corrupted past”. So, it was not altogether surprising that a former key figure in the southern liberation front, Dr Duong Quyen Hoa, should have said to me that “we have been colonised by the north”.
I returned to a Cambodia that was at once familiar and sharply changed by the years of Khmer Rouge rule. The basic shape of Phnom Penh was the same, but every Catholic church but one, a minor chapel, had been demolished. A city that ten years before had a population well over a million now had a population of about 300,000. Whole sections of the city were empty of people and side streets were stacked with wrecked cars.
That was the physical side. In contrast to Vietnam where I spoke with senior figures in government my only contact in the upper ranks of the PRK was with Mat Ly, the deputy minister of agriculture. As I outline in my book, it was a less than convincing encounter, raising the question that is still relevant today: how do people like Mat Ly, or Hun Sen, explain the years they spent working within the Pol Pot regime before, towards the latter part of its existence, they defected to Vietnam?
The question that is still relevant today: how do people like Mat Ly, or Hun Sen, explain the years they spent working within the Pol Pot regime before, towards the latter part of its existence, they defected to Vietnam?
My memoir ends in 1981 at a time when the problems and challenges of the years following the communist victories in Indochina seemed to be in a state of stasis with little chance they would be solved. It would be ten years before change took place as the Soviet Union first entered a period of decline and then collapsed, so removing the backing it had provided for Vietnam. At the same time China’s increasing power came into play as it exerted that power to insist on fundamental changes in Vietnamese policy. Ultimately, the Cambodian problem was presumed solved by the establishment of UNTAC (the United National Transitional Authority in Cambodia) that oversaw the election of 1993 but walked away to leave Hun Sen and his associates the dominant power in Cambodia.
Today, twenty-five years later, the transformation of the situation in Indochina is profound. At one level it is as if the decades of French colonialism and the Indochina wars had never occurred: Cambodia remains an essentially weak country wedged between its stronger neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand, as it was in pre-colonial times. This, in itself, is something to ponder, but as we do it must be with a recognition of something very new in the strategic equation for the region: the ever more powerful China exerting an influence as never before.
At one level it is as if the decades of French colonialism and the Indochina wars had never occurred