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Cambodia’s prince of mystery

Cambodia’s prince of mystery

Minh Chin last spoke to her husband 35 years ago, over a crackly phone line. She was in Phnom Penh, on the eve of the city’s fall to the Khmer Rouge, and he was on the outskirts, preparing for his last stand against the communists.

“He called me to say that our regime was lost and that we would meet again after the country got peace, and he told me to do everything the Khmer Rouge soldiers ordered me to do,” she recalled. The line then went dead, and after more than 25 years of marriage, that was the last she heard or saw of him. “I don’t know how he died, where he died, or when he died,” she said, wiping away a tear.

Minh Chin, a sprightly but frail woman of 77, says she often hears rumours her husband is alive and well, living a quiet life in some other part of the country. After travelling to Phnom Penh in several fruitless attempts to track him down, she found only strangers, misidentified or using his name and title for personal gain.

They were “fake people” who impersonated him, she said: village conmen and rumourmongers who still manage to captivate local populations by conjuring up the name of Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey.

A largely forgotten figure in the West, Chantaraingsey still retains a potent mystique in rural Cambodia. A keen advocate for Cambodian independence, the prince was one of the few royals to throw in their with Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic, which abolished the monarchy in October 1970 and ran the country until 1975. After Chantaraingsey’s cousin, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was overthrown in March 1970, he took up command of a military brigade in Kampong Speu.

From 1972 until the fall of Lon Nol, Chantaraingsey served as brigadier general, presiding over a virtually autonomous fief. A gifted commander, he was revered by the local peasantry and earned the praise of foreign observers. Even after the Khmer Rouge takeover, when he was presumed killed, Chantaraingsey remained one of the few hopes for resistance.

At our interview, Minh Chin sat straight-backed, dressed in a navy blue and white floral print dress. Under the sloping wooden ceiling of Wat Chan Sok Vannaram, a leafy pagoda in her home village of Trapaing Mon, she has a faintly regal air, though it was hard to tell if it was a shadow of her privileged past, or simply her contrast with the rustic surroundings. From a wooden beam above the table hung an old portrait of Sihanouk from the 1960s, yellowing and warped by moisture.

As the former wife of a royal, Minh Chin said she visited Sihanouk several times after he returned to the country and was crowned king in 1993. But her links to the palace – formalised only by marriage – gradually wore thin, until the old connection merely reminded her of past pains. In 1994, she retired to the pagoda in Trapaing Mon, where she has spent the past 15 years in the traditional Khmer fashion, praying and cooking food for the resident monks.

The only remaining memento of her husband is a gilt-framed photo from the early 1970s, hanging from a wooden column near the black-framed portrait of Sihanouk. It shows Chantaraingsey – dressed in army fatigues, red beret and sunglasses – standing on the wide stone rampart in front of Angkor Wat.

“It is enough for me living at a pagoda,” she said. “I don’t miss everything from the past, when I lived in the royal family, because I want to forget it all.”

Though most sources agree Chantaraingsey was killed by the Khmer Rouge some time after they seized power in April 1975, rumours of his survival have persisted. The Bangkok Post reported that Chantaraingsey was still active in June 1975, leading 2,000 men in a guerrilla war against the communists. Belgian journalist Jacques Bekaert wrote that his troops were still fighting on as late as 1977, when they were thought responsible for the destruction of a refinery at Kampong Som.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said Chantaraingsey’s royal lineage and local popularity combined to produce a mythical aura. This was bolstered by rumours that Chantaraingsey’s men – distinguished by their roaring tiger insignia and white scarves – were immune to bullets.

Youk Chhang said Chantaraingsey and his troops were ascribed responsibility for a string of unrelated incidents in Democratic Kampuchea, including minor acts of theft and destruction that were likely the work of jao prey – jungle people living beyond the reach of the Khmer Rouge.

In around 1976, an airplane appeared over Siem Reap. Khmer Rouge telegrams show that Chantaraingsey was thought to be behind the mysterious craft. “Suddenly, the rumour was spread it was him, Chantaraingsey, who was flying the plane,” Youk Chhang said. “He became almost magical.”

Accounts of the prince’s death vary widely. The Historical Dictionary of Cambodia claims he was killed while trying to save his wife in Battambang after April 1975; another account, by Hass Savoeun, a member of the United States-based Buddhist Khmer Centre, says he met his end when his troops attempted to fight their way out of their besieged barracks in Kampong Speu and escape to Thailand.

“There’s no hard evidence to prove that he died, but had he been alive he would have returned” to Phnom Penh, said Youk Chhang. “In terms of hard evidence of the Khmer Rouge at the time, no such thing exists.”

For Spencer Dale, an Australian adventurer who spent extended periods in Cambodia during the civil war, Chantaraingsey’s tale has a particular resonance. In the early 1970s, a young Dale met and befriended the prince, accompanying him on hundreds of patrols and combat missions.

Dale eventually left the country in March 1975, as the Khmer Rouge prepared for their final assault on Phnom Penh. Like Chantaraingsey’s wife, he has wondered for decades about what became of the elusive prince.

Dale, now an energetic 65-year-old, returned to Cambodia last year in a bid to pick up his trail. Through dozens of conversations – mostly with ageing former Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol soldiers – he claims to have pieced together an account of the prince’s final hours.

Dale was in some ways an unlikely companion for Chantaraingsey. A native of suburban Brisbane who looked askance at the escalating war in Vietnam, he managed to avoid the Australian military draft by enlisting for three years in the Citizen Military Force.

In late 1970, after his service was completed, he travelled to Cambodia with a trove of new photographic equipment to see the war up close – “to do the Sean Flynn thing”, as he put it. Flynn, a journalist and the son of Australian screen icon Errol Flynn, made international headlines in April 1970 when he disappeared in Cambodia along with journalist Dana Stone.

“I decided I would come and do what he was doing,” he said. “But I had no ideas about being in the army … I didn’t want to be a soldier.”

His first contact with the prince came early the following year. Dale recalls sitting in a Phnom Penh hotel bar, where he met an officer from the Khmer Republic’s army, FANK.

After introducing himself, the officer invited to photograph child soldiers stationed at a pagoda in Kampong Speu. When the pagoda, close to a military base controlled by Chantaraingsey’s men, came under sustained Khmer Rouge attack – they “thought I was an American adviser”, Dale recalled – he was intercepted by two FANK soldiers and spirited away to safety.

“One had an M60 machine gun with hundreds of bullets wrapped around him like a Mexican bandit,” he said. “They both put their muzzles to the left [and] right side of my neck, and then a lanky officer dressed in green came running up and said, ‘relax, we’re your friends.’”

To Dale’s surprise, he was then presented with a wicker basket filled with French delicacies: bread, cold cuts, wine and pâté. The next morning, Dale was taken to a nearby military base to meet the man who sent him the surreal token of welcome.

From the moment they met, Dale hit it off with Chantaraingsey. “There was just an incredible chemistry,” he said. “We bonded instantly, and that bond lasted until I last saw him, about five years later.”

As the two drew closer, Dale became a regular feature of Chantaraingsey’s social circle, accompanying he and his wife to dinners, parties and official government events. One of Chantaraingsey’s lieutenants even put Dale up at his Phnom Penh villa, where he lived and dined with the officer’s wife and children.

Dale also accompanied FANK units – particularly 13th Brigade troops – on dozens of combat missions, witnessing at first hand the brutal fighting between the Khmer Republic and its communist enemy. Photos from the field show a young Dale, often armed and clad in a flak jacket and helmet, surrounded by FANK soldiers in green army fatigues.

During the civil war years, Dale documented his experiences in thousands of photos and more than three hours of film. The 8mm colour film reels in particular are a rare record of daily life in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Republic. In one early reel, Phnom Penh is bedecked with Lon Nol propaganda posters showing Vietnamese communists – in black conical hats bearing demonic red stars – destroying Buddhist pagodas and stealing rice from Khmer villagers.

The footage also captures the chaotic combat of the civil war. One striking scene, from August 1973, was filmed from an armoured personnel carrier that was carrying a FANK colonel with whom Dale had just shared a glass of cognac after lunch.

As the film shows the vehicle advancing down a narrow bitumen track, the colonel was shot in the head. From this point on, the footage unfolds in eerie silence: the colonel’s men remove his helmet, dripping with blood. When the vehicle stops, the officer is carried out by his men, a gold chain hanging limply from his wrist, and laid on a stretcher. The film then shows the blood-filled cognac glass being picked out of the vehicle. Rarely has the civil war been captured so vividly and with such gory immediacy.

Dale says he has been sitting on the footage for years, and hopes it might one day be picked up and used as the basis for a documentary or feature film about the civil war.
“It warrants a movie,” he said of his death-defying time in Cambodia. “It’s just unheard of. But it did happen.”

Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey was born in Phnom Penh in 1924, a son of Prince Norodom Chanthalekha, and was from the very first an iconoclastic figure.

In the 1940s, he served in the Japanese-raised green shirt militia that sought to oust the French, later joining the Khmer Issarak, an anti-colonial movement then based in Thailand. By 1951, Chantaraingsey had established himself in rural Kampong Speu – his future base of operations – and developed into what historian Ben Kiernan has described as a “comprador warlord”, maintaining about 500 men under arms.

Many details of Chantaraingsey’s life in this period remain obscure. Julio A. Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer, said royal records show he was married at some point to Princess Sisowath Samanvoraphong, a daughter of King Sisowath Monivong. He said that Minh Chin, the woman claiming to be the Prince’s wife, did not appear in the royal archives.

“It was common for princes and other aristocrats to have mistresses [that] were not necessarily recognised by the Royal Court and would, therefore, not appear in the records,” he said.

But Jeldres said there were many examples of Cambodians falsely claiming to be royals or married to royals, and questioned Minh Chin’s claim that she was Chantaraingsey’s wife. (He said there was no birth date recorded for Princess Samanvoraphong, and cited refugee reports that she died with the prince in the hills of Battambang, where they had been hiding and leading an unsuccessful struggle against the Khmer Rouge).

But Prince Sisowath Thomico, an adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni, said he “would not be surprised” if the secretive Chantaraingsey had taken a second wife.

“He always behaved as a warrior, which he really was, and would stay apart from the rest of the Royal Family,” he said. “Few people really knew him.”

Thomico said polygamy was once common in Cambodia, both for royals and commoners, and was not expressly outlawed until the passage of the 1976 Khmer Rouge Constitution.

Dale added that Minh Chin – who he knew as Madame Chantaraingsey – “was the only one I ever saw” in the prince’s company, providing photos of the two together at a dinner party in the early 1970s.

Minh Chin – born into a middle-class family in Kampong Speu in 1933 – claims she was married to Chantaraingsey at just 15 years of age, after he arrived in her village to distribute Issarak propaganda.

She said she resisted his advances at first, assuming he was already married – something he later denied. In the early 1950s, she spent a lot of time in the field with Issarak units, learning to handle firearms and ride horses. After the country gained its independence from France in November 1953, Chantaraingsey rallied to the side of then-King Sihanouk, and the couple traded the difficulties of life in the maquis for a more comfortable life in Phnom Penh.

Chantaraingsey shared the baby-faced look and good-natured grin of his cousin Sihanouk, as well as his iconoclastic nature, but the relationship between the two ran hot and cold. In 1957, after his return from a military academy in France, Chantaraingsey was accused of disloyalty and jailed on lèse majesté charges. After a year in prison – a time in which he reportedly penned a series of poems – he was released and slowly rehabilitated by Sihanouk’s government. He was eventually appointed director of the Phnom Penh Casino and went on to amass a large personal fortune.

When Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol in March 1970, Minh Chin said, Chantaraingsey was asked to raise a brigade to fight the communists and eagerly rose to the challenge, displaying a degree of competency that bucked the trend in the graft-ridden Khmer Republic. As he went about assembling the 13th Brigade, based in Kampong Speu, many of the troops were drawn from the families of the Issarak rebels he led in the early 1950s. The uniforms of his men bore a roaring tiger insignia in honour of Chantaraingsey’s birth year.

Jeldres said US diplomatic reports from 1973 and 1974 paint Chantaraingsey as one of the “most efficient” officers in the Khmer Republic, to the extent that Lon Nol – fearing a potential rival – forced him to renounce his royal title.

Under his command, the 13th Brigade managed, in 1973, to recover the Kirirom plateau, which had been under communist control since 1970. Jeldres said FANK’s commander in chief, Sosthene Fernandez, trusted him so much that put him in sole charge, in early September 1974, of dealing with Khmer Rouge leaders thought to be open to negotiation.

In April 1973, the New York Times reported that Chantaraingsey was a “virtually independent warlord”, straddling National Road 4 in Kampong Speu. As the head of Brigade 13, Chantaraingsey reportedly controlled a 200-square mile “fief” encompassing 60 villages and an estimated 100,000 people.

Times journalist Sydney Schanberg described tours arranged by Chantaraingsey for foreign officials and journalists as “models of public-relations expertise”, often capped off by boozy lunches in the field.

It was undoubtedly on one such occasion that Chantaraingsey first met journalist and poet James Fenton. Fenton later immortalised the prince in his poem ‘Dead Soldiers’, the title of which was a sardonic reference to the empty brandy bottles that amassed during a battlefield banquet:

They lived well, the mad Norodoms, they had style.
The brandy and the soda arrived in crates.
Bricks of ice, tied around with raffia,
Dripped from the orderlies’ handlebars

For Fenton, Chantaraingsey – a Norodom battling his cousin, Sihanouk – embodied the familial nature of the civil war, which eventually consumed most of the princes and revolutionaries that made up its cast. (Saloth Chhay, Pol Pot’s elder brother, at that time served as an orderly to Chantaraingsey, further confusing the war’s tangled web of familial relations).

As the noose tightened on the Khmer Republic, and as Chantaraingsey came under pressure from the regime’s powerbrokers, the Prince reportedly used his own fortune to purchase American weapons from other Cambodian generals.

“He sold everything he had in the end,” Dale said. “He got bucket loads of cash, and went around to the Cambodian commanders and bought weapons and ammunition from them, so his men would have the best equipment. That’s the sort of man he was.”

AS Dale spent more time with Chantaraingsey facing the rigours of combat, the line between observation and personal involvement began to blur. After seeing the horrors of the war up close – the “innocent people being blown apart” – he said he drew closer to Chantaraingsey’s men, resolving to help them any way he could.

He also started arming himself before patrols, ready to defend himself if the situation turned sour. Miraculously, he avoided any serious injury, only sustaining two minor wounds from M79 grenade shrapnel.

In late 1971, Dale’s involvement in the Cambodian war caught the attention of the US government, and he soon started passing information to the Central Intelligence Agency. Regular briefings took place in Honolulu, he said, and the CIA’s agents were hungry for any information about the Khmer Republic’s cloak-and-dagger intrigues.

The US connection soon led Dale into more involved intrigues of his own. In August 1973, with tacit approval from then-deputy US air force attaché Robert Krim, Dale claims he had a midnight meeting with Chantaraingsey to discuss getting rid of the ailing Lon Nol in a bloodless coup.

he Prince pulled up in his Citroen outside his late father’s villa on Suramarit Boulevard, Dale recalled; orderlies handed out ice-cold, cologne-scented towels.

The plan, he said, would have allowed Sihanouk to return from his exile in Beijing, where he was acting as titular head of the communist resistance, but would have barred him from taking any active part in politics.

Chantaraingsey was also confident several Khmer Rouge commanders in Kampong Speu were willing to “come across” to the government for a sweetener of between US$5 million and $10 million each.

“We wanted to change the whole direction of the war, and it was the only way we could stop the slaughter,” Dale said. “And if the US had seen fit to do it and seen the light, this whole bloody mess could have been avoided. We’ll never know, but there was a hell of a chance.”

In the end, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh rejected the coup plan; Dale said they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to keep the increasingly popular Chantaraingsey on a short leash. (Dien Del, another brigadier general during the Lon Nol regime, confirmed Chantaraingsey had aired secret plans to overthrow Lon Nol, though the plot was quashed before any specifics reached him).

Four weeks before the fall, as the ailing republic entered its death throes, Dale took one of the last commercial flights out of the country. Through his connection with the CIA, he said he tried to procure more covert support for Chantaraingsey, one of the few men he thought capable of reversing the regime’s slide into the abyss.
“I pushed for everything they could get to him,” Dale said. “I arranged to see him again just before the end, but when things collapsed they collapsed very quickly and I couldn’t get back there.” “It was probably for the best,” he added, “because if I had have got up there, I wouldn’t have got back.”

ON April 17, 1975, Minh Chin joined the mass exodus out of Phnom Penh, and boarded a ship bound for Battambang. Earlier that morning, she said, she had sent her adopted son to school; a few hours later, after black-clad Khmer Rouge cadres had fanned out across the city, she was barred from entering the school building. She never saw him again.

En route to Battambang, the cadres in charge of the boat killed several of the passengers, and she recalled spending the trip trying to erase her old identity as a general’s wife and socialite. She readopted her maiden name and passed the Khmer Rouge years on a collective farm in Battambang’s Phnom Sruok district. She survived, like many others, by burying her past and severing her ties with the vanished pre-war world.

“They monitored me every day because they didn’t believe my husband was a farmer,” Minh Chin said. She said she even pretended to fear handling guns – a staple of her time with the Issarak – out of fear it would prompt suspicion. After the fall of the regime in early 1979, Minh Chin spent a year in Siem Reap before returning to Kampong Speu to try to track down her husband and relatives. “I didn’t see any of my relatives,” she said. “My neighbour said all of my family and my mother were killed by Pol Pot soldiers.”

After the fall, Dale says he tried to procure additional arms for Chantaraingsey through his intelligence contacts, in the hope he would reach the Thai border and establish a base of resistance there. Due to the 1970 Cooper-Church Amendment, which barred US military assistance to Cambodia and Laos, all procurements had to be undertaken covertly, and were to be funneled to the border with the aid of Thai military intelligence.

Before the fall, a shipment of tens of thousands of inexpensive Sten submachine guns arrived from Europe, but the attempts came to naught when Chantaraingsey failed to resurface.
“We thought he would be able to bring many thousands of people,” he said. “It was all pretty hopeless… No one made it from the 13th Brigade.”

Dale claims that according to research he has conducted over the past year, which involved interviews with former Khmer Rouge and FANK officers, Chantaraingsey was on the outskirts of Phnom Penh at the time of the Khmer Republic’s surrender.

Due to the speed of the fall, Chantaraingsey’s original plan – to make a final stand at a FANK base at Doh Kanchor, about 56 kilometres south of Kampong Speu town – was foiled. The base was unprepared for the Khmer Rouge assault that hit it shortly after the regime’s surrender. It ran up the white flag on the first day, forcing Chantaraingsey to attempt an escape to Thailand.

Citing an eyewitness account given by a former Khmer Rouge soldier in Pailin, Dale said Chantaraingsey was eventually captured in Kirirom National Park after his convoy of armoured personnel carriers ran out of gas. The soldier reported seeing Chantaraingsey – stripped naked except for a krama around his waist – handed over to men under the command of Ta Mok, then in charge of the Khmer Rouge’s Southwest Zone.

Dale says the handover took place at an old ammunition factory off National Road 4, a few kilometres south of the Kirirom plateau. He puts the date at between April 20 and 22. “He saw Chantaraingsey being led away with the soldiers… and that’s the last anybody knows.” At some point afterwards, Chantaraingsey was presumed killed, along with his remaining men.

Dale summed up Chantaraingsey as a “romantic” figure, whose fatal indecisions in the final days of the Khmer Republic prevented him from taking a proud stand with his men at Doh Kanchor. “It just all fell apart at the end like a house of cards – it just collapsed – and it shouldn’t have,” Dale said.

In the end, the 4,500 inhabitants of the base – which included soldiers, their wives and their children – surrendered and were butchered methodically by the Khmer Rouge. Dale said just 18 survived.

It is impossible to determine Chantaraingsey’s precise fate, since the key figures who spoke with Dale did not wish to be interviewed for this article. But Dale says he believes his version of events to be the “honest-to-God truth”, and after investing thousands of dollars and countless hours in finding it out, he says he will return to Australia content, perhaps to write up an account of his years in Cambodia.

“It’s been worth it. Every dollar I’ve given away… has been money well spent to find and escape from the horror that’s haunted me all these years,” he said. “The whole thing is just a hell of a story.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA


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