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Cambodia, the Kingdom of complexities

Then-managing editor Robert Carmichael in the first Phnom Penh Post office, which was located opposite Wat Botum, in August 2003. Photo supplied
Then-managing editor Robert Carmichael in the first Phnom Penh Post office, which was located opposite Wat Botum, in August 2003. Photo supplied

Cambodia, the Kingdom of complexities

I arrived in Phnom Penh in 2001, drawn here largely by the fact that I wanted to be near China but not in it. Cambodia seemed a good choice.

I had also hoped to freelance a story about ethnic minority Montagnards fleeing Vietnam’s repressive highlands for Cambodian refugee camps as coffee plantations extended into their traditional lands. But, as I was new to freelancing, I didn’t manage to sell that story.

And so I was fortunate that, with just a few dollars in my pocket and the imminent prospect of having to return to the UK, The Phnom Penh Post needed a managing editor. I was in the right place at the right time when then-publisher Michael Hayes offered me the job on a trial basis for a fortnight.

He soon extended that to three months, and I ended up staying for two years, working out of the small newsroom on the first floor of Hayes’ house near Wat Botum. It was crammed with ramshackle computers, threadbare curtains, a mishmash of furniture and, in the backyard, a beefy generator that cranked into action at regular intervals as the city’s power supply collapsed. A wheezing air-conditioner did its best to keep us cool in the hot season; The Post’s newsroom remains the only place where I’ve sweated through my fingertips.

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Michael Hayes proofs the front page of the issue of 29 August 2003. photo supplied

My time there, from 2001 to 2003, was fascinating, although I’d be lying if I said we didn’t cast an envious eye back to 1997 when the disintegration of the CPP-Funcinpec alliance resulted in chaos. The Post’s front pages of 1997 to ‘98 reflected a period of tumult, and I was not the only foreign journalist who felt we’d largely missed the boat.

Of course we hadn’t. Every period is newsworthy and, with journalism described as the first rough draft of history, it was up to us and our colleagues across town – at The Cambodia Daily – to write it. And we did, although the paper, hobbled in its incarnation as a fortnightly – “Phnom Penh Post?” one wag told me early during my stay. “More like Phnom Penh Past.” – struggled in its news coverage against The Daily, which was, naturally enough, a daily.

So we focused on where we could compete best: analysis and features, and on those we did a good job in challenging circumstances. The paper was always short of money; many of the foreign interns worked for nothing, and there was a lot of making do. (Hayes’ inventive deals offering advertising space to restaurants and bars in exchange for food and drink vouchers that he dished out to his staff earned him the moniker “Okhna Coupon”.)

The Cambodian journalists during my tenure – Vong Sokheng, Bou Saroeun, Lon Nara, Vann Chan Simen, Sam Rith and a string of interns during the 2003 general election – made the running; without them, and the tireless Aun Pheap, who at that time was The Post’s office manager, the rest of our small crew of perhaps a half-dozen foreign journalists would have managed very little. Our time at The Post forged lifelong friendships.

Robert Carmichael and Bill Bainbridge on The Post’s balcony. photo supplied
Robert Carmichael and Bill Bainbridge on The Post’s balcony. Photo supplied

I left Cambodia shortly after the 2003 general election, fascinated and not a little puzzled by this small kingdom and its complex, tortuous history. Not for nothing, though, is Cambodia referred to as a boomerang nation – the kind of place people return to – and in early 2009, with the pending trial of Comrade Duch, infamous as the head of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 torture and execution centre, I came back.

By then, the paper had been sold and was, at long last, a daily. I spent a few months editing part-time in the newsroom in 2009. Late last year I put in another couple of months. So, what’s changed since my day when perhaps a dozen people put out the news? Plenty. The staff has expanded at least tenfold. Technology has moved on too – dumb-phones have been replaced by smartphones, video has become a staple and the social media aspect is … well it’s something that hadn’t been invented back then.

The Phnom Penh Post is, in other words, a markedly different beast. And yet, in some ways it hasn’t changed at all: it still attracts talented reporters, both Cambodian and expatriate; it still reports fearlessly; and it still holds true to its responsibilities – to tell its readers, to the best of its ability, what is happening.

That task won’t get any easier as the country heads into the 2018 general election, which promises to be the most tightly contested vote in two decades. The ruling party has a lot to lose and, as it likes to promise Cambodians on a seemingly weekly basis, it will do whatever it takes to keep its grip on power, democracy be damned. I doubt the old guard’s threats will work for much longer, if indeed they will work at all in this youthful nation, yet they remain a depressing hangover of the violence that has for so long afflicted the country.

I won’t be in Cambodia to see the outcome. But, like so many of the paper’s alumni, I’ll watch from afar, glad in the knowledge that today’s Post journalists will carry on the vital task of reporting the news as fairly and accurately as possible, just as the journalists who came before them did. Over the past quarter-century hundreds of people worked to make this one of the region’s great newspapers. Over the next quarter-century many more will continue to do so.

And so, on the 25th anniversary of The Post’s founding – and particularly to its founders Michael Hayes and the late Kathleen O’Keefe – thank you for the opportunity. Working at The Post was a unique, wondrous and formative experience. I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world.

Robert Carmichael was managing editor of The Phnom Penh Post from 2001-03. He is also the author of When Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal.

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