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Comment:Border expert's fate a mystery

Comment:Border expert's fate a mystery


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

an aim."

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.


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