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Long Botta sits in the garden as his wife, Long Sorey,  arranges orchid flowers at their riverside home in Phnom Penh last week.
Long Botta sits in the garden as his wife, Long Sorey, arranges orchid flowers at their riverside home in Phnom Penh last week. KARA FOX

Lawmaker straddles two eras

As the opposition boycott drags into its second week, you could forgive one politician for having itchier feet than most.

After all, Long Botta has been waiting for 38 years for his second political life to begin.

The 70-year-old lawmaker – the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s number two candidate in Battambang province – won his first parliamentary seat this election, almost four decades after he last played a political role in the Kingdom.

An appointed cabinet minister during both the Sihanouk and Lon Nol eras, Botta was dramatically evacuated from Phnom Penh by helicopter during the US Navy’s Operation Eagle Pull on April 12, 1975, five days before the Khmer Rouge took the capital.

“This is a new life for me. I have dreamed about [this] for so many years, and it happened [so] suddenly,” he says.

Returning to the Kingdom from France in 2005, he became an active member of the Sam Rainsy Party in 2008 and was asked to be a candidate for the newly formed CNRP just a few months before the July 28 election.

Botta, who was notified that his family would be evacuated just hours before US helicopters left Phnom Penh in 1975, sees the recent election as his final chance to change things in Cambodia.

“One thing I regret is that I have not so many years left.… It’s the last battle now. [They] have destroyed a country and I cannot accept it. That’s why I’m back.”

Ruling elites from the US-backed anti-communist Khmer Republic were priority targets for execution after the Khmer Rouge took the country, and Botta would almost certainly have been killed if he had stayed behind.

“There is nobody left.… I am the only survivor [from the Lon Nol cabinet],” he says.

“I was on the top list of people to be killed.”

Survivor’s guilt is one of many things that motivate Botta to continue a fight against what he believes is essentially the same enemy he faced as a right-wing politician decades ago.

“Being someone who fought against a dictatorship and communism, I have to fight for democracy,” he says.

“That’s all I want. I feel too lucky to [have so] much. I cannot enjoy this kind of life.”

An opportune departure
That fateful April morning in 1975, Botta, then minister of culture, was on his way to an emergency meeting to discuss whether then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk should be flown back to Phnom Penh from Beijing to take hold of the crumbling nation.

Over the previous months, as the communists’ onslaught on the capital had grown increasingly ferocious, the cabinet had been meeting daily.

“The Khmer Rouge were launching missiles over the city every day – 15 to 20 missiles. They would randomly fall in the market.… You could not believe [what it was like],” Botta says.

Stopping at his office ahead of the meeting that morning, Botta received a phone call from Timothy Carney, his tennis partner and first-secretary at the US embassy.

It was 8:15am.

“He said, ‘I have to speak to you in French so there is no confusion. You and your family have to take your suitcases and join the US ambassador to leave Cambodia this morning at 9am’.”

“I almost collapsed.”

Knowing his family would be targeted if the Khmer Rouge took the city, Botta scrambled to pick up his wife and two children.

There was no time to even say goodbye to his parents or other family – all of whom were later killed.

Although Norodom Boulevard would have been the obvious route to the US embassy, Botta took the parallel Monivong Boulevard – a seemingly banal decision that became momentous.

Prime Minister Long Boret had asked the police to stop all ministers trying to reach the American embassy along Norodom Boulevard to prevent them from fleeing the Kingdom, Botta says.

“Most [of my colleagues] were killed. Except me, because I chose the right street,” he says, the disbelief still evident all these years later.

Botta adds, however, that he did not know at that point he would be unable to return to Cambodia.

“I realised 15 minutes after we left Phnom Penh in the helicopter that the US was planning to leave the country forever.… I thought to myself, 'Cambodia is over'.”

The path to politics
As a young student in the early 1950s, Botta enjoyed the slow pace of life in the capital.

“Sometimes I see the old pictures.… Around the Sisowath High School there is nothing around and there are big flowers everywhere.… It’s the period I enjoyed most in Cambodia,” he says.

His father was the chief medic at Ang Duong Hospital, where the family would sleep several nights a week while he worked the night shift.

The other hospital medic rotating nightshifts happened to be Sinn Sisamouth, the legendary Cambodian singer, who at that point, had yet to break into the big-time.

“He would sing while giving vaccinations. He was close to me … and already girls used to come to see him at the hospital,” Botta says.

“It was a small bed, but for Sisamouth, it was for ladies, even the princesses sometimes.”

After sitting the French baccalaureate at the Lycee Descartes in 1960 at 17, Botta won a scholarship to study in Toulouse, France.

But as the only Cambodian at a French university of 10,000 students, he felt alienated from his home country.

“Once a month, when I got my scholarship money, I would go to a small Vietnamese restaurant to eat. It was so expensive. I was well-dressed on payday just to eat a small piece of fish and rice.”

After completing a PhD in nuclear physics in 1967, Botta returned to Cambodia with his betrothed Long Serey, whom he met in France.

A year later, at the age of 26, he was appointed the director of the nation’s secondary schools.

Soon after, in 1969, as Cambodia became increasingly entangled in the neighbouring Vietnam War, Lon Nol appointed the right-leaning Botta as education secretary in his cabinet.

Despite the rampant and infamous corruption of the general and his officials, Botta maintains that he personally remained steadfast against graft – a stance that eventually forced him to resign from the cabinet.

“I told him, 'General, I cannot work as a minister and accept this corruption. But one day if you need me to fight communism, call me.' I told him that.”

He says that he was not aware of the Lon Nol-led coup that toppled Sihanouk in 1970 and installed the Khmer Republic until it happened.

“It was very complicated with Sihanouk. I respected him; he respected me, too.… We were friendly, but politically, we did not agree,” he says.

According to him, at one public meeting in 1969, Sihanouk proclaimed later Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan and Botta as the two most “incorruptible” people in the Kingdom.

“[Sihanouk] was very complicated. He played left against right.”

In 1973, Lon Nol called him back to be an adviser, and he was appointed as minister of culture in 1974.

Again, his anti-corruption stance irked others in the government, especially the generals, who would receive pay for twice the number of soldiers than were really in their battalions.

“They would ask the postmen to put on uniforms. God, they were incompetent.… Many times the generals went to ask Lon Nol to dismiss me,” he says.

Late in 1974, as the Khmer Rouge drew closer to Phnom Penh, Lon Nol called a cabinet meeting in which Botta claims he was the only one to admit the general’s position had become untenable.

“I said, ‘Marshal, it’s time for you to take some rest.’

“That night, I did not sleep in my apartment. I asked my bodyguard and driver to go home. I took my wife and two young children and an M-16 gun and we went to my office inside the palace and slept there.”

Long Botta (centre left) disembarks the USS Okinawa with Saukham Khoy
Long Botta (centre left) disembarks the USS Okinawa with Saukham Khoy (centre), successor to Lon Nol as president of the Khmer Republic, after being evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The second coming
Botta frequently refers to his second political coming as a “new life” and says many people he meets today assume he had been killed.

“One day, four years ago, I went to the Sisowath High School.… I saw a lady of 40 years old.… She asked me what I was doing there, and I said I was a student here in 1959.

“I mentioned my name and she stared at me.… ‘Are you really Long Botta? I thought you were dead already’.”

Despite preparing to now enter a political fray very different to what he dealt with in the 1970s, it’s clear that Botta’s formative years in politics, set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge, still colour his way of looking at the country.

“I am fighting against the same leadership I was 40 years ago. But today, it’s reverse. We are now in the countryside where people support us … [while] before, [the Khmer Rouge] were in the countryside.”

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