Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 1978 WikiLeaks cables reveal ‘amazing mosaic’

1978 WikiLeaks cables reveal ‘amazing mosaic’

Cables revealed that Ieng Sary (centre right) was reportedly a charming and generous guest on foreign trips.
Cables revealed that Ieng Sary (centre right) was reportedly a charming and generous guest on foreign trips. Photo supplied

1978 WikiLeaks cables reveal ‘amazing mosaic’

Whistleblower website WikiLeaks’ recent trove of declassified US diplomatic cables from 1978 revealed an administration torn between growing humanitarian concerns about what was happening in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the tug of a tangled web of geopolitical considerations. Harriet Fitch Little this week asked historian Milton Osborne, who was a diplomat with the Australian Embassy in Cambodia prior to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, for his thoughts on the release and the significance of WikiLeaks to historians.

Reading through the cables released last week, what impression emerges of international attitudes towards Cambodia in 1978?
What is fascinating about these documents is the extent to which they give a picture in 1978 of a whole range of unresolved positions on the part of all the principal players. To take the case of the US – on the one hand it is increasingly concerned about human rights in Cambodia, but at the same time it is very firmly opposed to normalising relations with the Vietnamese government. On the other hand, the US is anxious to have good relations with China, but at the same time, it is very much aware that it is dealing with China at a time when China is engaged in an antagonism with the Vietnamese. It is an amazing mosaic that existed in 1978, and looking at these cables, we’re looking at a whole series of unresolved issues that took a long time later to be resolved.

Do these cables tie in with the current historical consensus on what the major players were thinking in 1978?
I think they do. We’ve known the broad element of this set of relationships for a considerable period of time. One of the very interesting things about this situation, as revealed in the various WikiLeaks cables, is the extent to which there was great uncertainty on all sides about just what was going to happen. Another thing it does underline for a historian is the extent to which matters have changed so dramatically in a relatively short period of time – 1978 was a time when the Sino-Soviet dispute was very active, when the Soviet Union still existed, when there was no diplomatic relationship between the US and Vietnam.

Historian Milton Osborne.
Historian Milton Osborne. Photo supplied

Do the cables also correspond with what you suspected in 1978, when you were watching Cambodia from the outside?
I have to be careful here to not be too congratulatory to myself about [knowing] what was happening in that period. I became convinced by the end of 1975 that something terrible was happening in Cambodia, and I went into print to say that the following year. I didn’t know the actual size, the scope in detail, but I had no doubt that something terrible was happening. It wasn’t until after the regime was over that we were able to establish a clear picture of just how many people died. But I think what these cables do quite strikingly reveal is that there’s little doubt that the US was aware that something of a quite terrible nature was taking place in Cambodia.

What are your thoughts on Wikileaks as a phenomenon?
Wikileaks is remarkable for the extent to which it has been able to obtain material that would not have been available in the pre-digital age. If people want to keep secrets, they have to be very careful about how they guard their secrets. Quite clearly it has not been possible for governments to do that in the digital age.

Is that an endorsement?
As a historian, I like to have access to as much as possible, but as someone who once worked in the Australian government for a number of years, I find it difficult to think how governments can operate unless they are indeed able to keep secrets. So the historian’s position is at odds with the positions that governments try to maintain. The idea that everyone should have access to everything may sound wonderful in philosophic terms, but I don’t think you can run a country on that basis.


  • Kingdom's Covid cluster cases jump to 194

    The Ministry of Health on February 25 confirmed 65 new cases of Covid-19, with 58 linked to the February 20 community transmission. The latest cluster cases include nine Vietnamese nationals, five Cambodians, one each from Korea, Singapore and Japan, with the rest being Chinese. This brings the total number

  • Locations shut, dozens more Covid-19 positive

    The Ministry of Health has closed 23 locations in connection with the February 20 community transmission of Covid-19 and summoned for testing anyone who had direct contact with affected people and places. The number of discovered related infections has risen to 76, including 39 women. In a press release,

  • Cambodia's Covid cluster cases rise to 137

    The Ministry of Health on February 24 recorded 40 more cases of Covid-19, with 38 linked to the February 20 community transmission. Of the 40, two are imported cases involving Chinese passengers. The 38 include two Vietnamese nationals and one Cambodian, with the rest being Chinese. This brings the total cases

  • Covid cluster raises alarm, health bodies urge vigilance

    The Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia have expressed great concern over the February 20 cluster transmission of Covid-19 in the community. Both entities appealed for vigilance and cooperation in curbing further spread of the virus. Ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine said

  • PM confirms third Covid-19 community transmission

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 20 announced the Kingdom's third outbreak of Covid-19 community transmission after 32 people tested positive in just over 10 hours. Addressing the public from his residence after an emergency meeting, Hun Sen said: "I dub it February 20 Community Event, in which 32 cases

  • Cambodia's cluster cases jump to 259

    The Ministry of Health on February 27 recorded 26 more cases of Covid-19 linked to the February 20 community transmission, bringing the total to 259 in one week. The 26 include three Vietnamese nationals and one Cambodian, with the rest being Chinese. The ministry noted that five of the Chinese