T he new United States Ambassador to Cambodia, Kenneth Quinn, has a history
of involvement with the Kingdom stretching back 23 years. Quinn here tells the Post
about his experiences, and comments on the current policy towards Cambodia.
IT happened suddenly, one day in June 1973. As far as the American foreign service
officer could see from his vantage point looking west from a Vietnamese mountain
top, Cambodia was burning.
Fire and thick black smoke poured from clusters of village hamlets along the Cambodian
side of the border.
The officer, Kenneth Quinn, found the scene "incomprehensible."
In the following weeks Quinn talked to some of the thousands of Cambodian refugees
who flooded into southern Vietnam.
"The picture began to emerge of this incredibly radical, brutal new movement
which the Khmer Rouge was putting in place," Quinn said.
This was the day, he said, that the Khmer Rouge "took over" as the main
protaganists from the various factions of Royalists, anti-Republicans and others
who had been fighting the American-backed Lon Nol regime.
"I saw with my own eyes this day that the KR turned from regular liberation,
communist revolutionaries into this radical, stunningly brutal organization."
Quinn said the change happened in three or four Khmer Rouge-controlled areas at the
same time. "It wasn't some local commander run amok. It was the KR giving an
order from central command to units in the field, implemented in a systematic way."
Quinn wrote a "long treatise" on the issue for the State Department, "and
it is fair to say it was completely ignored. People just didn't find it consistent
with what they believed at the time.
"Even when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh [in April 1975] I spoke about [their
brutality] publicly but didn't find any audience who found it credible for several
"It says a lot about what was going on in the United States at the time,"
After writing about what had happened, Quinn wrote his doctoral dissertation on why
it happened. "I think I was the first person in the West, or anywhere, to write
about this. I tried as best as I could to explain why."
This was the first of four separate "connections" Quinn has had with Cambodia;
the most recent being his appointment as the new US Ambassador to Cambodia.
In "a million to one chance" Quinn passed an examination to get into the
foreign service in 1967. The niceties and preconceptions of a diplomatic posting
- "chandeliers" and cocktail parties - was not the order of the day in
late 60s America. Quinn found himself in a single-engine plane bound for Vietnam,
where he would spend six years.
Post-Vietnam, in 1979, Quinn worked with Bob Ray, the governor of his home state
Iowa and a champion of refugees. The pair hosted that year a group of US governors
to the Thai-Cambodian border.
"In late October we happened to be there when thousands upon thousands of refugees
came stumbling across the border [into Thailand].
"I remember standing in one rice field in Aranyaprathet... there were 30,000
human beings around me dying at the rate of 50 to 100 a day. It was just a traumatizing
event," he said.
Quinn helped Ray organize "Iowa Shares", which raised money to send doctors
and medicine to the border camps.
"I didn't have another Cambodian connection till 1990, when [then Assistant
Secretary of State] Dick Solomon asked me to work on Indochina and ASEAN, particularly
on the Cambodian peace settlement, its relations with Vietnam and the missing-in-action
Quinn spent four years working with Solomon to 1994, through the UN-brokered elections,
having authored the State Department's "Roadmap to Normalization" which
spelt out US policy on Cambodia.
"In it we had all the steps, opening an office, lifting the trade embargo, setting
up MIA accounting processes, and human rights and political prisoner issues.
"One of the things I feel very good about was that as a result of our approach,
more than 2,000 political prisoners were freed in Cambodia.
"I again thought this would be my last dealing with Cambodia. We'd had the elections,
very significant changes had taken place and I thought the last thing I could do
was to get the most favored nation [MFN] trading status on the table and signed quickly.
That hasn't happened yet... but here I am back.
"This is my fourth experience with Cambodia. I look back now and see this kind
of thread that has run through my career and my life. Unexpectedly, but to my benefit."