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Germany’s former envoy to Cambodia recounts long, twisty path to diplomatic ties

Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh, Wolfgang Lerke and Prince Norodom Ranaridh
(From left) Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh, Wolfgang Lerke and Prince Norodom Ranaridh. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Germany’s former envoy to Cambodia recounts long, twisty path to diplomatic ties

In October 3, Germans in Cambodia have two occasions to celebrate: German National Day and the 20th anniversary of official diplomatic relations between Deutschland and Cambodia.

Many assume the coincidence of the holiday and milestone to be a fluke, said Wolfgang Lerke, a journalist and former permanent representative of Germany to the Supreme National Council of Cambodia.

“Many people consider this a coincidence, but it’s not,” said Lerke, a resident of Moldavia who served on the Supreme National Council from 1992 to 1993.

With the doubly notable date coming up, Lerke recounted its history.

The Federal Republic of Germany and the Kingdom of Cambodia entered into full diplomatic relations in 1967. But political tumult on both sides complicated the relationship over the next 25 years.

Less than two years after diplomatic ties were established, Cambodia cut them in June of 1969, one month after the country entered into a diplomatic relationship with the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. After the break, France represented German interests in Cambodia until Phnom Penh fell to the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime in 1975.

The fall of Phnom Penh marked the end of all relations between the two countries. Only East Germany had an embassy following the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The building on the capital’s Street 214 became the property of unified Germany, with Hungary becoming a protecting power in 1991.

Wolfgang Lerke
Wolfgang Lerke. PHOTO SUPPLIED

When Lerke arrived in Phnom Penh February of 1992, he met the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who accepted his letter of accreditation.

“We talked for two hours, and His Excellency was happy about the fact that the silence between our two nations came to an end after 23 years.” Lerke said. At the time of their discussion, the countries’ relationship was not yet diplomatic.

Lerke then made his way to his future home at the German residence, lowered the Hungarian flag and raised the German flag in its place.

Germany’s status as the United Nations’ third largest donor country (after the United States and Japan) demanded the nation play an essential role in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) mission from 1992 to 1993.

Domestic law in Germany prevented their Bundeswehr armed forces from joining missions with UNTAC forces. Instead, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl sent 150 corpsmen and 350 tonnes of equipment to create a field hospital in Phnom Penh. The facility was located on the sports field at the devastated campus of Phnom Penh University. It was originally intended to treat only UN soldiers, but as it expanded to treat and save thousands of Cambodians, it was soon dubbed the “House of Angels.”

On September 3, 1993, the global community recognised Cambodia as a sovereign nation after the UNTAC left the country following an 18-month occupation. Most countries immediately entered into diplomatic relations with verbal agreements, Lerke said, but Germany insisted on an exchange of documents with Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

German hospital located in Royal Univecity of Phnom Penh in 1992
German hospital located in Royal Univecity of Phnom Penh in 1992. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“This took a couple of days, since the official text had to be revised and accepted by many parties,” Lerke said.

The same month, King Norodom Sihanouk celebrated his coronation at the Royal palace, Lerke said. The celebration fell on Lerke’s birthday.

“His Royal Highness surprised me with a large black forest tart,” Lerke recalled. “He and 2,000 guests sang Happy Birthday for me.”

The coincidence gave Lerke an idea: why not wait until October 3, German National Day, for the two countries to officially renew their diplomatic ties?

October 3 fell on a Sunday in 1993, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefly opened its offices that morning for a short ceremony followed by champagne and hors d’oeuvres in the garden of the German residence

Michael Scholten
Michael Scholten. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“When I delivered my speech, heavy rain started, but I kept on speaking and became extremely wet,” Lerke said. He dedicated the final sentence of his speech to his daughter, Vanessa, whose 20th birthday also fell on the historic day.
“As I mentioned before,” Lerke said with a smile, “It was not a coincidence.”

Contributor Michael Scholten:
German journalist Michael Scholten, 41, visited 123 countries, before deciding to settle in Cambodia in 2009. The former chief reporter of a Hamburg-based TV magazine covers stories about Asia for several German media, was a co-founder of the first German-language newspaper, KAZ, and writes books about travel, TV and cinema. Scholten lives in Phnom Penh with his two little Khmer-German sons Tim Sovann and Léon Bonarith.


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