THE headlines were titillating: "Embassy girl accuses envoy: I was hit"
and "The embassy nurse shows her scars and wonders: dare she go back?"
The readers of the British Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial were presented with
a story that featured all the ingredients for a scandal of shocking proportions:
the Cambodian Ambassador to England had beaten his maid so badly that she had fled
to the next police post and had to be treated for head wounds in a hospital.
Furthermore, the 1958 articles revealed that the maid's mistreatment was not an isolated
incident, but rather was the climax of a long history of abuse.
What outraged the public even more was the Ambassador's justification for his actions.
When questioned by journalists about the incident, he insisted on his right as head
of the household to spank his children and domestic personnel with a flexible stick
as a disciplinary measure whenever the need should arise.
Such corporal punishment, he added, was commonplace in Cambodia and he could not
understand why it had provoked such outrage.
The man pictured on the front page of the Daily Mirror was Sam Sary, a longstanding
Sihanouk ally and the newly appointed Cambodian Ambassador.
He stands smiling, his chest covered by the medals which he had gained for loyal
services rendered over the years to his political mentor.
As Sihanouk's envoy to the Geneva Conference on Indochina in 1954, he had won high
praise for his role in negotiating the end of French colonial rule in Cambodia. A
graduate of the Lycee Sisowath, he had entered the civil service in 1939 and worked
in the judiciary, the tax department and in the political police.
A long stay in France followed for law studies that were, according to an official
Sangkum-biography, "crowned by shining success".
After his return in 1950 he rose quickly through the bureaucracy, to become one of
the closest advisers to King Sihanouk.
A leading figure in the preparations for the 1955 elections which produced a sweeping
victory for Sihanouk's Sangkum, he was involved in a campaign to marginalize all
At one point he led a group of Sangkum partisans against a Democratic Party rally,
which deteriorated into a riot and left one supporter of the Democrats dead.
His services were appreciated by those in power: When Sam Sary's name was mentioned
in conjunction with a major scheme to smuggle pepper across Cambodian borders, he
was coincidentally appointed to his new post in London, which put him out of the
Cambodian judiciary's reach.
But the patrons who protected him from the fallout of the pepper scam could not protect
him from the consequences of the scandal which had now made him the target of London's
Later in the year, the Cambodian Government published a couple of booklets in which
it reproduced a number of letters and telegrams that it had exchanged with Sam Sary.
After the news from London had reached Phnom Penh, Sary's domestic misconduct had
turned into an affair with political overtones. According to a collection of documents
entitled "Affaire Sam Sary à Londre", a telegram from the Cambodian
Government called Sary back to Phnom Penh for consultations, on June 10, three days
after the news broke.
Another cabled order to return followed after 6 days, in which Sary had shown no
willingness to return to Cambodia for what he called an affair "considered in
the general public as of no importance".
This "unimportant" affair had however provoked him to file an official
complaint with the British Foreign office. As one of his telegrams explains: "Have
protested officially Foreign Office against impolite attitude of British institutions
and have published vehement rebuttal against anything that threatens honour of Cambodia
STOP will leave London by next plane STOP Sam Sary"
The Government of Sim Var in Phnom Penh was clearly displeased with Sam's "official
protest" on Cambodia's behalf without prior consultation with Phnom Penh.
The Government wrote back ordering him to renounce any official statement he had
given in this affair and informed the British Embassy in Phnom Penh that they declined
any responsibility for Sary's protest.
It was the last telegram to reach Sam Sary in London, and he quickly replied that
he would never take back what he said. On June 25th, he arrived at Pochentong airport
for what became the last month of his diplomatic career.
Sary came back to a politically troubled Cambodia; the Government of Sim Var and
the National Assembly were deadlocked over a series of issues and the Government
was about to collapse.
The Cambodian people were used to this. Since the 1955 election, they had seen an
average of three Governments per year formed and dissolved again, with different
sectors of society deeply divided over who should rule the newly independent Kingdom,
At the time of Sam Sary's return, the public was preoccupied with border violations
by Thailand and the then Republic of South Vietnam in two Cambodian provinces.
Sam Sary was eager to get explanations for a treatment which he clearly perceived
as insulting. But with his mentor Sihanouk and the Government busy elsewhere, he
found himself sitting at home, waiting for things to calm down until his affair could
This waiting, it seems, finally pushed him over the edge. He sat down and wrote to
his mentor and protector Sihanouk.
It was an angry letter: Sam Sary had learned via unofficial channels that he was
to be replaced as ambassador, and he complained that he "was being treated worse
than a traitor".
Furthermore, why had he been obliged to spend "60,000 Riels of the people's
money" to fly back to Phnom Penh "for this ridiculous affair"? He
was not however, surprised by such decisions since, he wrote, his country was "feudal",
and ruled by an "authoritarian and anti-parliamentarian Government".
The decision to first send him to England and then to recall him only made sense,
if he "was being sent abroad so that others could wring his neck".
An exhaustive list of his achievements and services rendered to Sihanouk during the
quest for independence was added, implying that Sihanouk was showing little gratitude
towards one of his most faithful servants.
Sihanouk forwarded the letter to his mother, Queen Kossamak.
The Queen called Sam Sary to the Palace the next day. It was a tense meeting, and
the Queen made no secret that she found the letter deeply insulting to Sihanouk and
to the throne.
Sam Sary did not offer a full apology, the only gesture which could have saved him
at that late a date.
The next day the Government of Sim Var broke the news in Cambodia, releasing a statement
that summarized the accusations against Sam Sary and the reasons for his recall from
Sam Sary retaliated with his own press release, accusing the heads of Government,
who "thirst for power had made loose all sense of dignity and loyalism",
of conspiring against all "friends of Democracy", now that their days as
ministers were numbered.
He repeated the argument he had made to the British press that when beating his maid
he had acted within his rights as the head of the household and he cited the Cambodian
penal code in his defense.
Adding to its own arsenal of insults, the Government responded harshly, accusing
Sam Sary of cynicism, of bringing shame to his country and of "playing the game
of the enemies of the Khmer people".
Last but not least, the Government's response insinuated Sam Sary was having an extramarital
affair with the maid he had beat so badly.
It was then Sam Sary's turn to dig into more private matters. In his open letter
of July 4 1958, he rebuts charges of having a concubine by writing: "I only
want to say ... that it is morally preferable, if necessary, to have a concubine
than to be betrayed by one's wife or to have relations either with one's servants,
or with somebody else's wife and her daughter, as it is the case with certain members
[of the Government]".
He added, that many informers had provided him with further intimate details of various
Government member's lives and it was only from politeness that he refused to reveal
It is unclear why Sam Sary had gone so far as to insult friends and foes in his campaign
against what he perceived as highly unjust treatment.
Only two days later he turned around, writing a series of apologies to Sihanouk and
By then, however, he had overstepped too many bounds. Although he had put most of
the blame for his disgrace on the Government of Sim Var, Sihanouk had been amply
criticized, too, and the latter was in no mood to forgive.
In the July 9 meeting of the High Council of the King, Sam Sary was ejected as a
member, and subsequently lost all his official Government posts. Further letters
of apology followed, all to no avail: Sam Sary's political career seemed to be over.
Not quite: In the following months he embarked on a fruitless endeavour to found
a opposition party and began publishing a newspaper critical of the Prince's policies.
His bitterness over Sihanouk's ingratitude knew no bounds. Moving further away from
his former master, he started to develop links to various opposition groups. Early
the next year, he left Cambodia hurriedly.
Soon after, his name was mentioned in conjunction with foreign secret services and
a conspiracy to overthrow Sihanouk so that Cambodia would align itself with Thailand
and South Vietnam in their US-sponsored fight against the "communist threat".
Sam Sary lived in exile until he died in 1962, "possibly put to death",
as Milton Osborne has written, "by one or another of his foreign paymasters."
Information for this article was taken from the National Archives of Cambodia files
#102 and #357 of the Fonds de documentation Cambodge by consultant Greg Muller. Background
information on the pepper smuggling affair and Sam Sary's career prior to and afterthe
1958 scandal comes from "Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness",
by Milton Os-borne, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994.