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Noel Deschamps 1908-2005

Noel Deschamps 1908-2005



Ambassador Deschamps meets with then Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the mid-1960s.


oel Deschamps, a former Australian Ambassador to Cambodia from 1962-68, died at

age 97 on May 12, 2005, in Melbourne, Australia.

Ambassador Deschamps joined the Australian Department of External Affairs, as it

was known then, in 1937 and observed some of the key events of the 20th century at

close range. He was Australian Charge d'Affaires in Stalin's USSR (1946-47), head

of the Australian Military Mission in Berlin (1949-52), Australian head of mission

in Cairo during the Suez Canal crisis (1956), Ambassador to Cambodia during the Vietnam

War (1962-69) and Ambassador to Chile during the Allende years (1969-74). He was

also posted in Canada, New Caledonia, France, Ireland and South Africa. He retired

from the Australian diplomatic service in 1974.

Noel was a very humble, self-effacing man of tremendous wisdom with a great mind.

He excelled at making friends for Australia wherever he was posted and was not afraid

to speak his mind to headquarters back in Canberra. Intellectually brilliant, he

spoke French, Spanish, German and Russian fluently, apart from his native English.

Cambodia had a special place in his heart. In 1990 he wrote that when he arrived

in Cambodia in July 1962, he "discovered, right next door to war-torn Vietnam,

an idyllic country with no organized crime, no juvenile delinquency and no mendicancy,

one of the cleanest and most appealing capital cities and some of the most attractive

country towns in Asia, and a contented peasantry, tending their own fields. It was

a country one could easily acquire a great affection for."

Ambassador Deschamps befriended the then Cambodian Head of State, Samdech Norodom

Sihanouk, and they maintained a close, lifelong friendship, meeting regularly both

while the King was in exile and later on, after he was reappointed King in Cambodia.

"When I arrived in Cambodia, the country was completing its ninth year of independence

from France under the leadership of Norodom Sihanouk. He had maintained peace and

stability and encouraged moderate but solid prosperity and economic progress in Cambodia

with very limited resources, and had established a remarkable personal ascendancy

by strictly democratic and constitutional means. He insisted that the very survival

of his reborn nation in the international jungle of the mid-20th century world demanded

two things: internal unity and external neutrality. He believed that any breach of

either national unity or external neutrality would pose a mortal threat to his country.

His strength of personality was such that he was able to impose both these concepts

on his people. His leadership was fully accepted by the rural population of Cambodia,

which provided him with an effective counterweight to questioners and dissidents

with contrary ideas among the politicians, intelligentsia and businessmen of Phnom

Penh and the large provincial towns."

Noel's toughest assignment was given to him while Ambassador to Cambodia: represent

the United States of America's interests in Cambodia after the break of diplomatic

relations between the two countries.

On May 3, 1965, Cambodia broke diplomatic relations with the United States, following

an attack, on April 28, 1965, by US planes on the villages of Phum Chantatep and

Moream Tiek in Kampong Cham province where a young boy was killed and several other

villagers were seriously wounded.

Two days later, the US asked Australia to represent its interests in the Cambodian

capital, a request that Ambassador Deschamps was not happy about because he did not

feel like being the protector of American interests in Cambodia. He feared that Cambodians

would undoubtedly identify Australia with the United States if border problems continued

to occur, as they did. However, he was a disciplined senior officer, and Canberra

had decided to go along with the request of the US. He had no choice but to follow

his government's instructions and thus he became the de facto American envoy in Phnom

Penh for almost four years.

As such he was involved in the arrangements of Jacqueline Kennedy's visit to Cambodia

in 1967, Ambassador Bowles' visit in January 1968, the release of American prisoners

of war and he even managed to obtain the release of a young American who had been

found by Cambodian officials trying to smuggle Angkor antiquities out of the country.

The young fellow, son of a USAID official based in Bangkok, was taking the antiquities

to New York. Noel suggested that the family of the young man purchase a tractor and

present it to the Cambodian authorities in exchange for their son's release. This

was accepted by the Cambodian government and the young man was promptly released.

While Ambassador Noel Deschamps was quite successful in his dual role as Australian/US

Ambassador to Cambodia, back in Canberra and Washington the powers that be felt that

he was "too pro-Sihanouk" and "too pinky" for their tastes, so

they decided that his talents were better used as far away from Sihanouk and Cambodia

as possible, when in fact Noel's close relationship with His Majesty was an asset

that many other envoys wished they could have enjoyed. This attitude of American

officials prompted the respected journalist Robert Shaplen to write in the New Yorker

in September 1966 that Deschamps "did a better job for the United States than

it could have done for itself." A year later to the day, after Noel Deschamps

left Cambodia, the secret American bombing of Cambodia began.

Thus, he was posted to Chile, a peaceful country where Australia had just opened

its first embassy and appointed Deschamps ambassador. I met him soon after his arrival,

and we became good friends while he encouraged my early interest in Cambodian history.

He began reporting from Chile as he had done from Cambodia, with gusto and no fear

on the failure of Chilean socialism, and soon the left champagne (i.e. socialists

that drink champagne) that had taken over the department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra,

following the change of government there, complained that Noel was "too conservative".

After the military coup of General Pinochet he was recalled back to Canberra and

then returned for a few months to Chile and retired from the diplomatic service.

As he prepared to leave Santiago, many farewell parties were held in his honor, but

the most spectacular party was the farewell given by the drivers of all the ambassadors

accredited to Chile. It was the first time ever that a foreign envoy had been thanked

in such way by the drivers of the heads of diplomatic missions. His humility, wisdom

and simplicity had earned him many friends in all strata of Chilean society.

Ambassador Deschamps was highly recognized by foreign governments, receiving the

most senior decorations of Cambodia, Chile and France. Regrettably, Australia never

recognized his services, and he was never honored by his government.


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