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A chance meeting with Kathleen O’Keefe led me to my wife

Lon Nara at the old office of The Post in 2001. Photo supplied
Lon Nara at the old office of The Post in 2001. Photo supplied

A chance meeting with Kathleen O’Keefe led me to my wife

In early 1992, a slim barang woman ordered office furniture and stationery from a shop where I was a salesman. She said that together with her husband, she was going to launch an English newspaper in Cambodia – The Phnom Penh Post. She asked if I was interested in joining her team.

When the first edition of The Post was launched, I quit my job as a salesman. On July 9, 1992, I found myself moving to the northwest province of Battambang with multi-national UN military observers and peacekeepers. I then worked as an interpreter for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) until mid-1993. Later, I returned to Phnom Penh and found a new job with a Cambodian international airline, but it was short-lived and shut down soon after. I lost my job and I remembered the lady who had ordered the office supplies from me – Kathleen O’Keefe.

In 1994 Kathleen and her husband, Michael Hayes, offered me the post of office manager. I signed the contract and I started work at the office. The Post was made up of less than six local journalists, and most of them never attained media training, except one – Ker Munthit, who was trained in journalism in the former Soviet Union. In addition to the local reporters, several foreign journalists and pundits contributed in-depth articles to The Post. I was amazed by their skills. They seemed to know the Khmers better than the Khmers knew themselves.

My daily duty was to help the reporters and editor: answering =phone calls, replenishing office supplies, monitoring the media, translating the headlines into English, turning off the office lights and shutting down the Macintosh computers we used – these were the easiest jobs, to be honest. Meanwhile, Kathleen had to fix Macintosh machines whenever they broke down. At times, the power supply was even cut off.

After one year of work, my desire to become a news reporter was dwindling. I realised that a news reporter had difficult tasks and I was not qualified. In 1990, I was rejected by the national radio when I attempted to become a radio reporter. By working with a newspaper, I hoped that there was still an opportunity to learn to become a professional journalist.

Apart from office work, I had some assignments. The editor needed me to be an interpreter in interviews. I went out and followed up on some news. I saw some Khmer Rouge cadres who were hanging around the city. I was thrilled. It reminded me of the behaviour of a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers who kidnapped and held at gunpoint our United Nations Military Observer (UNMO) team in early 1993 in the Srey Santhor district.

I realised that the work of a journalist would place one in constant peril. Some were locked up while others were gunned down. The capital of Phnom Penh was thrown into frequent chaos.

Many felt that the fortnightly Phnom Penh Post played a pivotal role in providing balance, and independent news and views about political developments in Cambodia. Many subscribers said they were kept informed by reading the English newspaper. Cambodia was still in unrest. The Khmer Rouge was outlawed. The civil war was not put to an end despite the formation of new government with two prime ministers.

I resigned from my job and became an interpreter-cum-translator at the Singapore Embassy through a friend’s recommendation. My job was to provide briefs of daily news on Cambodian political developments. I reported to the ambassador and other ASEAN ambassadors.

I shuttled back and forth. In 1999, I left the embassy. It was hard to make ends meet with work as a freelancer for almost a year. In the new millennium, 2000, I met Kathleen again and returned to The Phnom Penh Post as a full-time reporter and translator. I was so excited as I had an opportunity to prove my abilities and be committed to creating achievements for The Post. I earned my first byline, thanks to Michael Hayes for providing intensive journalism training.

The Post also had a new team. Many foreign interns and new editors had replaced the old ones.

A young intern, Simen, also joined The Post under Kathleen’s supervision. Simen had six months of media training. Her father, also Kathleen’s friend, was a famous painter who survived Khmer Rouge’s S-21 prison.

As my relationship with Simen grew deeper, we couldn’t hide our romance from Kathleen, my editor and colleagues. Simen invited me to her house, and I met her parents from time to time. Soon I joined in on family trips to their hometown. Her father brought us to the Khmer Rouge labour camps, and the graves of his children.

Simen and I were tasked with the same assignments and travelled to the provinces to cover stories. We enjoyed our work and shared by-lines.

We got married in January 2003, and I left The Post for the final time. While I may not be with The Post anymore I still get nostalgic about it. What started off as a professional stint turned into such a fruitful personal relationship for me and I really have to thank The Post for it.

Lon Nara was a former reporter at The Post. He currently works as a freelancer for a multitude of international news agencies including The New York Times, Washington Post, CCTV China, and Channel NewsAsia.

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