T WENTY-SIX years after he left, Noel Deschamps, 87, returned to Phnom Penh last month
at the invitation of his friend King Norodom Sihanouk.
The former Australian diplomat found that much had changed since he was last here
- in the heady days of Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime in the 1960s - but
hindsight has not changed his views.
Deschamps remains a self-avowed "Sihanoukist", a believer in the King's
role in the future - as well as the past - of Cambodia, and a determined critic of
the United States' record in Cambodia.
Sprightly and alert for his age, Deschamps is firm in his convictions and not afraid
to voice them - but always within diplomatic boundaries.
The Australian Ambassador to Cambodia between 1962-69 - who for four years also represented
US interests after Sihanouk broke off diplomatic ties with Washington - Deschamps
witnessed a critical slice of Cambodian history.
These were the days of the Sangkum, the proclaimed heyday of Sihanouk's rule, but
also the start of Cambodia's slide into the Vietnam War.
Deschamps left Cambodia March 18, 1969 - a year to the day before General Lon Nol
overthrew Sihanouk - but maintained his friendship with the King through the years
of turmoil that followed.
He says the two regularly corresponded, except during Sihanouk's time under house
arrest during the Khmer Rouge rule.
Deschamps eventually returned to Cambodia to attend last week's Independence Day
celebrations at the King's invitation, and said, "it's like coming home."
He has seen or heard news of old personalities like "Nhiek Tioulong, Son Sann,
Ing Kiet, Van Moulyvann...they are around still, that's extraordinary to me,"
and also reacquinted himself with some of Cambodia's "little people, as the
King refers to them."
Deschamp's original path to Cambodia began when he joined the Australian foreign
service within weeks of its creation in 1936, having "decided 14 years earlier
that this was what I wanted to do."
A Cambridge-educated Australian of French ancestry, he had earlier got his first
glimpse of Cambodia at a French colonial exhibition on Angkor Wat in the late 1920s
and thought "this is a country I must visit."
It was not till near the end of his diplomatic career that he got the chance. After
postings in Moscow, Bonn, Berlin and Paris and elsewhere, he requested Phnom Penh,
which was to be his second to last posting.
He arrived in 1962 - well into what Deschamps agrees was the "glorious"
Sangkum regime - and instantly "found the whole thing absolutely fascinating."
Sihanouk presided over a nation of growing development and prosperity, helped by
foreign aid far less than the "huge" amounts being given today.
Australian-Cambodian re-lations were good - laying the groundwork for what continues
today - and Deschamps is proud of Australia's aid in those days.
"What we gave was well-targeted, intelligently given in areas that Cambodia
needed it, with the accent on the countryside and not the people in Phnom Penh."
He warmly remembers Australia donating, at Sihanouk's request, regular shipments
of water pumps.
"Sihanouk made a great affair of this. A big reception would be held at the
Olympic Stadium one year, another at the Royal Palace the next year, and the King
himself presided over them. That has never been forgotten in Cambodia."
Australia, he says, never attached political strings to its aid - but gave goods,
"This is the great mistake the Americans made throughout the 20th Century in
my opinion, sending vast amounts of money to places where it never met its objectives."
Deschamps became a strong critic of US foreign policy as Cambodia was drawn into
the Vietnam War. In a 1964 Australian diplomatic cable, recently declassified, he
described US policy as "clumsy, unimaginative and excessively rigid".
Ironically, it was he, as Ambassador of the US-allied Australia - which also sent
troops to Vietnam - who took on the role of de facto US representive to Cambodia
after Sihanouk broke off relations with Washington in 1965.
"My advice to them [the US] was essentially 'Don't involve Cambodia in the Vietnam
War, don't bring the war to Cambodia, don't try to work for the dismissal or departure
of Sihanouk, above all don't invade Cambodia. If you do any of these things, you
will bring tragedy to Cambodia."
The US, he says, had done none of these by the time he left Cambodia 1969.
Does he believe the US conspired in the Lon Nol coup a year later? "It's almost
un-provable but there are certain things that do tend to stand up. They wasted no
time in giving recognition and foreign and military aid [to Lon Nol]. These are not
suspicions, they are facts."
Deschamps scoffs at suggestions that Sihanouk's firm handling of power, and his critics,
contributed to discontent and his eventual overthrow.
"His authority was manifest [but] I remember he felt at one point there wasn't
enough criticism of the government, so he designed a counter-government to criticize
it more. He could take criticism."
To the suggestion that some historians put a harsher light on that, and other actions
by Sihanouk, Deschamps smiles and says: "Most historians."
But, he says, "you will have gathered that I'm a Sihanoukist". He notes
that he is not a historian but a former career diplomat, and "I stand as someone
between the critics and Sihanouk himself. This is a considered judgment."
Sihanouk's Sangkum may be considered by some to have been harsh, he says, "but
what kind of government has Cambodia ever had since its great Angkorian history but
"You judge a government by the way it operates and the extent it is accepted
by the people...whether it is benign, whether it is for its people.
"I am a pragmatist like King Sihanouk. I don't go for political ideology on
either the right or the left."
While eschewing any comment on modern day Cambodian politics - "the current
ambassador has enough to do without a stray Australian coming in here 20 years after
retirement and causing trouble" - he acknowledges that democracy can have "its
faults" and take years to grow.
On UNTAC, he says "it was a nice little project, it looked wonderful on paper.
But there were some realities that couldn't have been foreseen. We just hoped that
it could have been implemented in line with the original Australian [peace] outline
and the Paris Agreement."
As for the world's role in helping to develop Cambodia, he cautions: "We shouldn't
think of aid in terms of money. You can throw a whole lot of money down the drain
without any effect at all.
"It's the way that it's given and what is given. Sihanouk stresses that the
most important aid is in agriculture, to the peasants, at the lowest level."
But Deschamps says he has been surprised at the extent of Cambodia's reconstruction,
and perceives a will by the Khmer people to rebuild their country and lives.
"The person who can extract the most cooperation is the King himself, of course
he's closest to them."
And the future of the King who reigns but does not rule?
"I don't see Sihanouk as accepting a completely ceremonial position... It's
power that he thinks he needs, that is necessary for Cambodians, particularly the
"I feel it is a waste of his talents," Deschamps says, before adding: "But
that is presumptious of me...let's just say I feel that Cambodia needs the King as
an active element."