Sarin Chhak is welcomed at the United Nations by then-Secretary General Kurt Waldheim in October 1975. At left is Keat Chhon. Chhak disappeared in early 1979.
he current debate over Cambodia's borders has involved references on several occasions
to the name of Sarin Chhak, the eminent author of the only complete study (in four
volumes) of the Kingdom's borders, whose whereabouts have been the source of much
speculation following his disappearance immediately after the Vietnamese invasion
of Cambodia in January 1979.
Sarin Chhak was born Khin Kaing, in Krangsla village, Prey Kabass district, Takeo
province on January 2, 1922. He was the child of Mr. Khin and Mrs. Chhay Lak, both
Because he had to help his parents on the farm, he was unable to attend primary school
at an early age like other Cambodian children. During the French colonial period,
a regulation forbade children of advanced age to enroll in primary school, so in
order to attend, Kaing changed his name to Sarin Chhak becuase he did not want to
disclose his real age.
He was a good student and was, therefore, encouraged to pursue studies at a higher
level. He graduated from Phnom Penh University with a law degree and obtained his
Ph.D. in Economic Law in France in 1966. The topic of his dissertation was "The
Borders of Cambodia".
Paul Reuter, a professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris and one
of Cambodia's lawyers in the Preah Vihear case, writes in the introduction to the
first volume of "Borders of Cambodia" that "[Sarin Chhak's] work,
brilliantly presented in front of the Faculty Law and Economic Sciences of Paris,
will permit the author to find an attentive audience, which shall not fail to appreciate
the conscience, the tireless labor and the merits of the author." Adding that,
"Sarin Chhak abstained from creating any polemic or of using words filled with
bitterness and inviting us to believe that violence is not the only recourse to achieve
Upon his return to Cambodia, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served
in different posts within the ministry and also at the Cambodian Embassy in Paris.
He was appointed Ambassador to the United Arab Republic (Egypt) in 1968, with residence
in Cairo, while concurrently serving as Ambassador to Senegal.
Following the coup of March 18, 1970, Sarin Chhak denounced the coup, refused to
recognize the Lon Nol government and declared his allegiance to Samdech Norodom Sihanouk
as the legal Head of State of Cambodia. At the same time, he announced that the Cambodian
Embassy in Cairo had become the "Embassy of Progressive Cambodia in the UAR".
He was made a member of the Political Bureau and Central Committee of the National
United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), following its establishment in Peking in March
1970, and he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Royal Government of
National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK) in May 1970. As such he traveled widely in Africa,
where he had many friends and acquaintances urging the early recognition of GRUNK
by several African countries.
However, upon the arrival in Peking of Ieng Sary, the so-called "Special Envoy
from the FUNK-GRUNK within Cambodia," things began to work against the royalist
elements of the Front - including Sarin Chhak, Chea San, Huot Sambath and others
- and in favor of the Khmer Rouge, whose representative in the Chinese capital was
Ieng Sary. Sary had been tasked with changing the composition of FUNK and GRUNK and
making them more in tune with Khmer Rouge policies and strategies.
Until Sary's arrival in Peking, the Khmer Rouge had little influence on the Front's
policies and activities, which were directed from the Chinese capital by Samdech
Norodom Sihanouk, Chairman of FUNK and Head of State, and Samdech Penn Nouth, Chairman
of the Political Bureau of FUNK and Prime Minister of GRUNK.
According to former members of FUNK and GRUNK who escaped the Khmer Rouge's gulags
by exiling themselves to France, or who survived them, Sarin Chhak was highly appreciated
by Sihanouk and former Cambodian Prime Minister and GRUNK's then-Prime Minister (1970-75)
Penn Nouth but detested by Ieng Sary. Penn Nouth managed to get Sarin Chhak appointed
Deputy Prime Minister of GRUNK, concurrent with his maintenance of the Foreign Affairs
portfolio, just before the fall of Phnom Penh and this enraged Ieng Sary even further.1
After a mission to the United Nations in October 1975, during which he met with US
Assistant Secretary of State Philip Habib, Sarin Chhak disappeared from the scene
and later reappeared in the notorious Beoung Trabek concentration camp for diplomats
run by the Khmer Rouge. Several people have said that after Vietnam's invasion of
Cambodia in 1979, he was taken by Vietnamese soldiers to a Vietnamese military vehicle
and driven to an unknown destination.2
Some of my sources, including the children of Sarin Chhak currently living in France,
have suggested that the Vietnamese took Sarin Chhak and his wife to Hanoi, where
they kept him under house arrest until his death in the early to mid-1990s.3 According
to the same sources, during a visit to Hanoi by Sihanouk in July 1970, the Vietnamese
hero General Vo Nguyen Giap asked one of his staff to point Sarin Chhak out to him.
The same sources suggest that it was not in Vietnam's interests to leave Sarin Chhak
free, particularly outside Cambodia, as his thesis had stated that portions of Cambodia's
territories had been given to Vietnam, particularly in the south of the country.
This had not been forgotten by the Vietnamese.
In late 1979 former GRUNK Finance Minister Thiounn Mumm asked Ieng Sary to launch
a campaign to find Sarin Chhak, but Mumm says Sary refused, arguing that once liberated
he could turn against "Democratic Kampuchea".4
In 1989, during the first Paris International Conference on Cambodia, the surviving
children and grandchildren of Sarin Chhak wrote to Sihanouk and asked him to intervene
for the release of their parents. Samdech Sihanouk wrote immediately to Mr. Hun Sen,
but to the best of my knowledge, there was no answer from the latter.5
Then in September 1991 the family again wrote to Sihanouk advising that they had
received reliable information, according to which Sarin Chhak and his wife had been
kept until April 1991 in Vung Tau (also known as Cap Saint Jacques), a seaside resort
about two hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City, and then taken back to Hanoi.6
Samdech Sihanouk wrote to Vietnamese Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and to Hun Sen again.
The Vietnamese leader replied that after a serious investigation, it had been found
out that Ambassador Sarin Chhak and his wife were not in Vietnam.7
So, what happened to Sarin Chhak and his wife? It is a mystery. Was he taken to Vietnam
and kept under house arrest until his death? Or was he killed by the Khmer Rouge?
Let us hope that the forthcoming Extraordinary Chambers to judge the Khmer Rouge
may bring to light some information on what happened to Sarin Chhak and his wife
and allow their children and grandchildren to resume normal lives.
1 Author's interviews with the former GRUNK Ambassador to Algeria, the late Mr. Chem
Snguon; GRUNK Minister of Armaments, General Duong Sam Ol and GRUNK Finance Minister
Mr. Thiounn Mumm in Paris 1989 and 1995 respectively.
2 Author's correspondence with the former GRUNK Ambassador to North Korea, the late
Mr. Ang Kim Khoan, and interview with General Duong Sam Ol in Paris in 1995.
3 Author's correspondence, 1997-2000, with Sarin Chhak's eldest daughter Madame Chhary
4 Mr. Thiounn Mumm's letter to the author dated January 23, 1997.
5 Letter from Samdech Norodom Sihanouk to Mr. Hun Sen, Paris, August 1, 1989, copy
in my possession.
6 Letter from Madame Khin Chhary to Samdech Sihanouk, Paris, September 11, 1991,
copy in my possession.
7 Letter of Samdech Norodom Sihanouk, Paris, September 14, 1991, and response from
Vietnamese PM dated October 9, 1991, copies in my possession.