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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mandela legacy in SE Asia? Memorial brings parallels

Robina Marks, South African ambassador to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, beside a portrait of Nelson Mandela
Robina Marks, South African ambassador to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, beside a portrait of Nelson Mandela. Charlotte Pert

Mandela legacy in SE Asia? Memorial brings parallels

South African Ambassador Robina Marks last night compared Cambodia’s past and contemporary political struggles with those of her homeland, at a ceremony to mark the passing of Nelson Mandela.

At Raffles Hotel Le Royal, dozens of dignitaries, mostly ambassadors and diplomats, paid their respects to South Africa’s first black president, who led the struggle against segregation and apartheid.

The hour-long ceremony was comprised of a short documentary about Mandela’s life, a video statement from American novelist Maya Angelou and speeches from Marks and other guests.

“Like South Africa, Cambodia comes from a very difficult history as it tries to weave together a society that can come to terms with that history,” the ambassador said in an interview.

“[Cambodia] is also trying to identify for itself what it is that will contribute to nation building and towards the full human rights that every Cambodian deserves and should expect.”

Of Mandela, Marks, who is based in Bangkok but serves as ambassador to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar said: “We don’t own him as a country; we share him with the whole world.”

Ouch Borith, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed “heartfelt condolences” on behalf of the Cambodian people at the memorial. “For his legacy, we must all try to live a meaningful life and work for the betterment of all,” he said.

On the second day of the opposition party’s planned daily protest in Phnom Penh, Marks said Mandela’s emphasis on peaceful reconciliation between adversaries carries particular relevance in the region now due to political unrest here and in Thailand.

Of the anti-government protests that have taken place in Bangkok since the last week of November she said: “It was very interesting to us because [Mandela’s death] took place against the backdrop of some turbulence.

Democracy is very loud, again of course in Cambodia.”

Marks, who met Mandela on several occasions, said he was as impressive in person as he was in the media.

“He was a wonderful man, a huge personality, a presence which was enormous, and a presence that even though it is not manifested physically anymore, it is a presence that will continue.”

Marks said that Mandela could tie the tongues of otherwise articulate adults. Of her first meeting with him she said she “became an awkward teenage girl again”.

“I blushed, I stammered, I became my worst self. But he was gracious enough to recognise that he has that kind of persona that has that kind of effect on grown men and women, and he was gracious enough to allow me to compose myself and proceed with what I wanted to say.”

She said Mandela’s broad appeal was apparent on the day he died when Thailand-based South African expatriates, who are mostly white, came to the embassy to grieve.

“From the moment that our mission doors opened in Bangkok, the very first woman I received was a white woman, who just burst into tears and cried copiously and expressed her sense of sorrow. He’s not seen as a leader for black people only. He is seen as the leader for white South Africans as well. And that is part of the miracle for us.”

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