Should one laugh or cry at the news that the recently retired former Canadian Ambassador
to Cambodia, Gordon Longmuir, has just had a CIDA-funded senior aid consultancy in
Cambodia, for which he was eminently well-qualified, sabotaged by Cambodian opposition
elements and their foreign sympathisers?
On balance, one should perhaps laugh: at the way in which unrepresentative lobby
groups opposed to the present Cambodian Government have once again demonstrated both
their spitefulness, and the futility of their actions when viewed in a broader perspective
of improving Cambodian governance.
The case against Longmuir, as reported in two recent articles in the Phnom Penh Post
(April 13-26 and July 23 - August 2, 2001), is that as Canada's ambassador (1996-99)
he had "turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in the wake of the 1997 coup
and had adopted a blatant anti-opposition bias that undermined his diplomatic credibility".
Reportedly, the currency given recently to such allegations by "opposition legislators,
former diplomats and Cambodian human rights workers" led his prospective employer,
the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), to cancel his projected appointment
as in-country field director of a $3.25 million five-year project to offer legislative
support to the inexperienced
In a similar way, in April 1999, the same lobby of Cambodian opposition activists
and their international supporters derailed the imminent appointment of a former
Australian Ambassador to Cambodia (myself - from 1994 to 1997) to the position of
head of the Phnom Penh office of the World Bank.
Once, perhaps an exceptional personal vendetta. Twice - a pattern of political behaviour
that deserves to be held up to the light of public scrutiny, if the frequently expressed
advice from Cambodia's friends that Cambodian society should enjoy greater political
transparency is not to be seen by Cambodians as hypocritically one-sided. It is in
this wider public interest that I comment here on Longmuir's case - in a way that
I hope will not embarrass or distress him (I have not consulted him on this article).
What is one to make of allegations of his anti-opposition bias and his alleged "turning
a blind eye" to human rights abuses after the 1997 coup in Phnom Penh? As Longmuir's
co-ambassador in shared premises of the Australian and Canadian Embassies in Phnom
Penh, I regularly exchanged views with him and observed the way he performed his
Very obvious to his colleagues at the time was Longmuir's open-door contacts policy.
In a highly professional way, he maintained warm and close regular contacts with
politicians from all parties, both before and after the July 1997 fighting (I will
not call it a Hun Sen coup, because it was not one).
Leading opposition politicians (Sam Rainsy and his wife Tioulong Saumura in particular)
were regular guests in Longmuir's home; as were prominent Cambodian human rights
activists like Madame Kek Galabru (a Canadian dual national, prominent in Cambodian
human rights NGO circles), and international NGO representatives. Perhaps Long-muir's
crime was that he also regularly met with and entertained politicians from the government
coalition parties, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Funcinpec, both before
and after the July 1997 fighting.
Certainly in terms of guest-lists at Longmuir's functions I had the pleasure to attend,
his hospitality to opposition and human rights figures as compared with government
figures, seemed more than generous. There is no foundation for alleging anti-opposition
Was there bias, then, in his diplomatic reporting? And if there was, how would his
current detractors have come to know of it? These are interesting questions, because
as far as I know, Longmuir was never in the surprising position that I found myself
in, a few days after the July 1997 fighting, when contents of a confidential analysis
cable I had sent to my Foreign Ministry in Canberra appeared in a leading Sydney
newspaper, thereby freeing me from my diplomatic obligations and launching me 18
months later on an enjoyable new career path.
Longmuir was never "outed" in such an unusual way, and he retired from
Canada's foreign service in high standing. Whatever he may have reported confidentially
to his government during his time as Canadian Ambassador to Cambodia should properly
remain private to him and the Canadian Foreign Ministry.
So where could these allegations of bias come from? Perhaps from Longmuir's open
style of freely discussing contentious questions with his Cambodian and foreign interlocutors:
his fair-mindedness, his judicious posing of key questions, eg about the policy trade-off
between democracy and the people's security against a (threatened in 1997) revived
Khmer Rouge insurrection or renewed CPP-royalist civil war, or about the not entirely
adverse record of CPP achievement in terms of governance.
Presumably, Longmuir said enough around his dinner table to let his guests know that
he could not be relied on to be a one-eyed opposition sympathiser. In the overheated
world of Cambodian opposition politics, that would be crime enough: "He who
is not with us is against us".
In taking an even-handed stance in the politically tense years in Cambodia between
1996 and 1998, Longmuir was typical of the ambassadorial corps as a whole. I do not
recall a single resident ambassador who was pro-Sam Rainsy, or who did not have a
clear appreciation of the complex background to and likely outcomes of the July 1997
Such assessments were regularly exchanged in ambassador-level contacts. This became
politically important when Foreign Ministers and similar VIPs (parliamentarians,
etc.) visited Cambodia. Working breakfasts or lunches with colleagues were a useful
way for host ambassadors to reassure such visitors from home (who might have come
into Phnom Penh with more negative views, based on reading the strongly anti-Hun
Sen international media com-mentariat) that their ambassador had not "gone loco".
At such meetings visitors were exposed to a range of assessments regarding the CPP's
efforts to reconcile with its political adversaries and to restore a workable coalition
government in Cambodia, after the July 1997 fighting had shattered relations between
Funcinpec's First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh and his CPP Second Prime Minister
I well recall such working group gatherings, with people like US Congressman Steve
Solarz, Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali
Alatas, etc. I don't remember that Longmuir stood out at such meetings as a biased
pro-CPP or anti-human rights speaker. I recall his views as being pretty much in
the middle ground, and expressed in reasonable ways. Such consensus views were critically
important back in Western capitals, in countering the myths and exaggerations that
Sam Rainsy and human rights activists like Madame Galabru were energetically peddling
to a credulous Western media.
For a few months between the election in July 1998 and the restoration of CPP-Funcinpec
coalition government in October 1998, especially as seven weeks of opposition street
demonstrations in Phnom Penh steadily mounted towards a potentially bloody climax,
there was a not negligible risk of triggering a Haiti-style UN-endorsed foreign armed
intervention to unseat the CPP-led interim government. This would have renewed the
former civil war in Cambodia and destroyed all that UNTAC had achieved in 1991-93.
Improbable as it now seems, there were demands being made at the time (eg, by the
Rainsys and by their supportive US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher) that Prime Minister
Hun Sen should be arrested by helicoptered-in US marines and bundled off to face
criminal charges in The Hague. The sound counsel of the ambassadorial corps at the
time helped head off the possibility of such policy foolishness ever being considered
seriously in Western capitals.
Today, thankfully, Cambodia has moved on. There is now a frank and searching, but
basically hidden agenda-free, dialogue between Cambodia and its donor governments.
Realistic and achievable timeframes for addressing the large problems of governance
Cambodia faces are being discussed by both sides in sensible and non-abusive ways.
While the Sam Rainsy Party and a few NGO groups like Kek Galabru's Licadho continue
to rant about Cambodia's evils, their claims these days are met with the sceptical
scrutiny they deserve. They are no longer, except by a few naifs who have not been
very long in Cambodia, read as Holy Writ from the Mountain.
What has just been done to Longmuir is of no political benefit to its instigators;
it is simply another instance of vengeful spite by the losers. This incident does
not change the reality of how Cambodia's relations with the world have been largely
restored to normality.
But these two successful scalp-takings of foreign ex-ambassadors are not without
consequence. They suggest that if other ex-ambassadors from the 1996-98 period, like
Gildas Le Lidec (France) or Mushahid Ali (Singapore) or Kenneth Quinn (USA) or Paul
Reddicliff (UK), were ever now brave or silly enough to apply for UN or aid agency-sponsored
posts in Cambodia, they could be sabotaged in the same way by the political enemies
of the present
Government of Cambodia.
This is an interesting paradox - and on its face, quite undemocratic. Why should
a party that in the last Cambodian election (1998) received only 15% of the vote
be able, with the help of its foreign supporters, to veto meritorious international
appointments? In a wider Cambodian governance context, such acts of personal spite
are futile. New arrivals in senior expatriate positions in Cambodia quickly learn
to see through the Cambodian opposition's gross demonisation of the government. For
as long as Cambodia needs expatriate professional helpers, there is no advantage
to the Rainsy Party in vetoing the old hands.
There is a cost to Cambodia in such incidents. Expatriates now working in Cambodia
will understand that should they do their job fairly and well, it is unlikely that
they will be able to work in Cambodia in any other international capacity again:
because they will have acquired "form" (to use the Australian horse-racing
term) as not being one-eyed supporters of the opposition. It does not seem in Cambodia's
interests that their prior experience and wide contacts in Cambodia cannot be used
In Longmuir's case, one wonders how easily his eventual replacement as field director
of the Canadian legislative support program in Cambodia will be able to match Longmuir's
demonstrated superb skills in liaising with Cambodian parliamentarians from all parties,
and winning their confidence and respect.
It is a pity that in Cambodia, the discredited and virtually irrelevant opposition
and dissident NGO tail is still, in ways that hurt this vulnerable country, wagging
the international assistance dog.
- Tony Kevin is Visiting Fellow, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, and was Australian Ambassador
to Cambodia, from 1994 to 1997.