Australian academic, historian and author Milton Osborne has just published his tenth book, a cultural and literary history of Phnom Penh. A former diplomat, Osborne, 72, first arrived in Cambodia in April 1959 and has been returning regularly ever since. His latest literary offering, titled Phnom Penh, was commissioned by Oxford-based Signal Books as part of their Cities of Imagination series and compiles many of the stories Osborne accumulated during his stints in Cambodia. Osborne spoke to the Post’s Cat Barton by the pool at Hotel Le Royal, where he used to stay for $3 a night in 1966.
Historian Milton Osborne achieved a brief notoriety in the 1990s when his book Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness was banned for about four weeks. “I see the photocopied pirated edition still thrives,” said the former Australian diplomat. “Much to my chagrin I see it has dropped from $5 to $3 in the Russian Market. This puts one in one’s place.”
Why do you not talk about contemporary politics ininterviews when in Cambodia?
My decision not to talk about this is both self interested and genuinely felt – it is not the job of tourists to come and comment, but it is the job of writers to put what they feel on paper. I have not spared people in the past.
Your 1994 book Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness was banned, what happened?
Yes, it was banned for four weeks or so. Back then there was only one supermarket in town – Lucky Market. One day, soon after the book was released, someone wandered down from the palace and said “I don’t think you should sell that,” and so they took it off the shelves. A month later it was back. I see the photocopied pirated edition still thrives. Much to my chagrin I see it has dropped from $5 to $3 in the Russian Market. This puts one in one’s place.
Which of your ten books are you most proud of?
The two books which have been, in modest terms, not best sellers but good sellers, were Southeast Asia: An Introductory History, which is in its ninth edition. I’m trying to sort out the next edition of that but I find when I have just written a book I am not keen to go back to writing. It has been a very good seller and is now being translated into Khmer by the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap. I’ve waived the royalties for that one. The other is the River Road to China: The Search for the Source of the Mekong, 1866-73 which of all my books – save my first book which was very special to me – this is probably the one I was most pleased with. It was made a “notable book” by The New York Times in 1975.
So do you think the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is able to face the new challenges presented by damming the Mekong?
I think the Mekong governments face what would appear to be the greatest challenge yet in terms of plans to develop new dams on the main tributary of the Mekong River. I say “Mekong governments” as I think the role of the MRC is widely misunderstood – it is a creature of the governments of Mekong delta countries, it has no mandated capacity to direct anyone, certainly not a government. It can’t say a government could or should do this or that. While it does a very important job in terms of research, the challenge is to the governments.
Author William Shawcross wrote the introduction to your new book and said in the first sentence how much you loved Cambodia – is it true?
William Shawcross and I are not close buddies but we keep in touch, having first met at the time of the Cambodian refugee exodus into Thailand in 1980. I was surprised by his first sentence – I hadn’t thought that I loved Cambodia. I think I do in a particular way love Cambodia and Khmers. But of course you must remember some of my closest friends here were killed. So because of this, my love for Cambodia is qualified. I also knew those on the other side, who joined the forces that would become the Khmer Rouge. I don’t think they knew what they were doing. William’s probably right, I do love Cambodia, but in a particular way.
What are your favorite memories of Phnom Penh in the 1960s?
Getting to know Cambodians and developing a small number of close friendships with Cambodians. When I came back as an overage underpaid graduate student in 1966, I had none of the privileges of being a junior diplomat but my friends of 1961 were ready to talk to me again.
What were the expatriates living in Phnom Penh like back then?
Phnom Penh in the 1960s was full of characters. One was the owner of the Café de Paris – a Monsieur Spacesi, a Corsican who wore his Legion of Honor badge next to his (trouser) fly as a comment on all French governments. There were many bars which could have been transplanted straight from the waterfront of Marseilles to the waterfront of Phnom Penh. The French Embassy was full of people who had served in the colonial administration – the deputy head of mission was a very debonair aristocrat who would rotate his first and second wives, which was how he introduced them, through Cambodia and who had a gibbon that lived with him.
What was life like as a junior diplomat?
I lived in an apartment in a building which is still there now. There was no hot water and cooking was done on charcoal braziers and our allowances were so mean we couldn’t run the air conditioning. Eventually there was some kind of inspection and our rooms were declared to be below standard and we were moved. Although it seemed like absolute luxury to me it was probably not quite so good as I thought – when my replacement came for a visit before taking up his post, he was horrified with the accommodation on offer. I thought it was the crème de la crème.
Why do so many Cambodia scholars end up squabbling?
For whatever reason, Cambodia affects people very deeply. Once one becomes convinced that one’s interpretation is the right one then it becomes difficult to accept anyone else’s. After all, it is a country that has been through a horror many would regard as unimaginable.
What do you think is the biggest change in Cambodia?
The greatest difference that has emerged in the last five to ten years is communication – in the 1960s the press was limited, for Europeans, and there was only really the Prince’s paper, Realites Cambodgiennes, which was a mouthpiece for Sihanouk. We always used to joke, if something was not in the Agence Khmer Press (AKP) it didn’t exist. The postal service was unreliable and letters and packages were regularly stolen. In 1960-61 it was very difficult to get BBC or Radio Australia, (but) by 1966 you could pick them up a little better. I think that is why I am such an avid reader of newspapers now – for two years there was nothing I could read. On one occasion it took 32 days for a diplomatic bag to reach Phnom Penh from Canberra. When you see the connectivity with the outside world, now it’s just so different and that is a fundamental change.