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Thatcher connection

Thatcher connection

Dear Editor,

I found the report by Robert Carmichael of the quiet, but very effective contribution

which Mme Kek Galabru had made in setting up the initial meetings between Prince

Sihanouk and Mr Hun Sen in the latter part of the 1980s of great interest. I am delighted

that she has, in her own typically modest way, decided to let the role of herself

and her husband be more widely known.

A perspective history of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords may not be written for several

years to come. The official archives of the principal countries involved may not

be available for public inspection for at least another 20 years, in most cases for

another 30 or 50 years, and in a few cases never. It is however even at this relatively

early stage, in historical terms, sensible to put on record the important contribution

which another person made to the peace process, though this is neither widely known

nor recognised. I refer to Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister of Britain

in the late 1980s.

Mrs Thatcher came to Thailand in August, 1988 on her way back to London from a visit

to Hong Kong particularly to look at the Cambodian situation, of which she had no

first-hand experience, but which she realized was of importance to the future stability

and prosperity of the region. To that extent she was well ahead of one of her illustrious

predecessors in the Conservative Party, Sir Winston Churchill, who in his 79th year

was heard to remark: "I have lived 78 years without hearing of bloody places

like Cambodia"1.

Sir Winston's comments, however, were related to what the late author and diplomat

Sir James Cable has described as "the last example of an independent British

policy exercising significant influence in the resolution of a major international

crisis"2, namely the Geneva Conference on Indochina of 1954 which was co-chaired

by Britain and the Soviet Union and which brought a measure of peace and prosperity

to Cambodia in the late 1950s and 1960s until the war in Vietnam engulfed Cambodia

as well.

I was British Ambassador in Bangkok at the time of Mrs Thatcher's visit in August,

1988, which occurred at the time of the transition of the premiership from General

Prem Tinsulanonda to General Chatichai Choonhavan, whose mutual desire to play host

to Mrs Thatcher was happily resolved by an invitation issuing from both Thai Prime


Mrs Thatcher was accompanied by her Private Secretary, Charles Powell, and her Press

Secretary, Bernard Ingram, and a team of advisers and journalists who included not

a single official from the British Foreign Office. It was accordingly left to me

as the sole Foreign Office representative to explain the nuances and complexities

of the Cambodian situation, and it was fortunate indeed that I had served in Cambodia

in the early 1960s and in Vietnam in the early 1980s as well as in the South East

Asia Department of the Foreign Office in between.

Mrs Thatcher had a prodigious capacity to absorb and retain the information which

I fired in her direction. This did I hope prepare her for her meeting and discussions

with Prince Sihanouk which took place at the Funcinpec camp at Site B. The record

of those discussions must alas await the pleasure of our "30 Year Rule"

for the release of documents to the Public Record Office at Kew in London. Suffice

to say that on her return to Bangkok, Mrs Thatcher called an immediate Press Conference

and announced that Britain intended as a matter of urgency and importance to seek

the support and endorsement of the other four members of the UN Security Council

(United States, Soviet Union, France and China) in securing a settlement of the Cambodian


She was as good as her word, and though the Foreign Office in London was somewhat

diffident that this initiative was the result of her endeavours rather than those

of the Foreign Secretary at the time, Sir Geoffrey Howe, instructions were promptly

dispatched to the British delegation to the United Nations in New York and the engagement

of the UN Security Council in the peace process was energetically put in train.

Mrs Thatcher recognized that Britain had long played an objective and impartial role

in Indochina, both as Co-Chairman of the Geneva Conference on Indochina in 1954 and

of the Geneva Conference on Laos in 1962. She realized that a catalyst was needed

in the Security Council, which Britain alone could provide. China had been supportive

of the 1975 revolution in Cambodia which resulted in the emergence of Democratic

Kampuchea under Pol Pot; the Soviet Union had a Treaty of Cooperation and Friendship

with Vietnam whose troops, supported by revolutionary Khmer forces opposed to the

Pol Pot regime, liberated Cambodia in 1979; France was the former colonial power;

and the United States had yet to recover from its traumatic involvement in Vietnam.

In short, only Britain of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council had

the independence and objectivity to raise the Cambodian issue with the other four

Members without raising suspicions that we were acting primarily in our own interests.

The course of events which subsequently led to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the

arrival of the United National Transitional Authority in Cambodia to prepare for

the 1993 elections has been well documented. Nonetheless the particular role played

by Mrs Thatcher in galvanizing the UN Security Council into action needs to be put

on record as well.

It would not be fair to say that I was rebuked by the Foreign Office in London for

putting ideas into Mrs Thatcher's mind, but word came back that there was some displeasure

in certain quarters for what was described as my "settee diplomacy" in

sitting down with Mrs Thatcher and giving her a three-year course in the history,

politics, culture and economy of Cambodia in the very short time at my disposal.

I put it to her that there were those on the left of the political spectrum in Cambodia,

whom Prince Sihanouk had regarded since the early 1960s as Khmers Rouges in contrast

to the Khmers Bleus on the right of the political spectrum, who could certainly play

a part in Cambodia's future body politic, as they had in the early 1960s, and it

is no coincidence that the present Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Defence Minister,

Finance Minister and Minister of Commerce of Cambodia are indeed covered by that

generic description.

- Derek Tonkin, British Ambassador to Vietnam (1980-82) and to Thailand and Laos

(1986-89), Guildford, Surrey, UK


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