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A night at the bar, a leap of faith

Among the 20 political parties who competed in the 1993 national elections was the Republic Democracy Khmer Party, whose slogan was 'Communism is Evil'. Sara Colm
Among the 20 political parties who competed in the 1993 national elections was the Republic Democracy Khmer Party, whose slogan was 'Communism is Evil'. Sara Colm

A night at the bar, a leap of faith

For one of The Post’s early alums, a leap of faith from the risky world of freelancing to the even riskier world of a fledgling newspaper started with a casual introduction on a hotel veranda: “This is Michael. He’s going to start the first English-language newspaper in Cambodia.”

It was January 1992. Two men were drinking and talking in their rattan chairs on the veranda of the Renakse Hotel, and invited me over. One of them, Nate, introduced the other to me by saying: “This is Michael. He’s going to start the first English-language newspaper in Cambodia.”

A few conversations later I found myself in the managing editor’s chair of The Phnom Penh Post.

I had just moved to Cambodia to work as a stringer for The San Francisco Examiner after finishing the better part of a decade in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where I had edited the neighbourhood newspaper, The Tenderloin Times. The paper was published not only in English, but in Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese to serve the inner city’s booming refugee population.

By abandoning the uncertainties of freelance journalism for the even more risky undertaking of helping start up a newspaper in Cambodia, I joined a team of three: Michael Hayes, Kathleen O’Keefe, and Chap Narith. Despite the scarcity of staff personnel on the masthead, there was plenty of support around town for the newspaper in the early days.

It seemed that just about everyone wanted to get something published in the first issue, with several of the local hacks competing for who was going to pen the gossip column, later institutionalised as “The Gecko”. Soon enough The Post was able to hire reporters, with some of Cambodia’s best journalists coming on board that first year, including Mang Channo, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, and Ker Munthit.

This was Cambodia before its first national elections, before the blossoming of an independent press, before a quarter-million refugees had been repatriated from Thai refugee camps. It was a place where you couldn’t count on having electricity every day, even in Phnom Penh; where curfews were often imposed in the city at night; and where you took a chance of soldiers levelling their rifle or rocket launcher at you if didn’t slow down for a checkpoint on the provincial highways.

Sara Colm with one of The Post's first reporters, Mang Channo. Photo supplied
Sara Colm with one of The Post's first reporters, Mang Channo. Photo supplied

International relief workers had only recently moved their offices from cramped quarters in the Monorom and Samaki (Le Royal) hotels to individual villas in Boeung Keng Kang. No one had mobile phones and getting through on a landline was difficult. The option was often a “human phone call”: one visit to set up an appointment with a source and a second one to conduct the actual interview. Sending an international fax was problematic; email non-existent.

Putting out the first issue of The Post was very, very difficult. After Michael found an office for The Post, monks from Wat Botum were asked to come bless the newspaper and new offices. Shortly after the robed ones flicked holy water over all the new computer equipment, one of us – I won’t say who – mistakenly plugged the laser printer into the wrong voltage, destroying it.

A new printer – and stories – arrived just in time for us to publish the first edition in advance of our main competition, The Cambodia Times, making The Post Cambodia’s first English-language paper to publish since 1975.

Setbacks that seemed huge at the time – brownouts and blackouts, equipment failures, bureaucratic obstacles in getting government approval to publish – were soon but dim memories as we slogged through rubber deadlines and all-night production binges.

Like many, I have a visceral memory of those first days and nights at The Post: the generator chanka-chanking away 23 hours a day, the noise ricocheting up the concrete stairway of the office to fill the entire building – and our crania – with sound; working during the peak of the hot season with the windows closed to keep the racket out and the smoke from several chain smokers in.

Newsgathering got only slightly easier after the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived. Our press passes entitled us to ride the UN’s Russian helicopters and C-130 transport planes for free, enabling day trips to Preah Vihear or Koh Nhek, but few of us travelled after dark if we could help it. Journalists gathered for press conferences by Khmer Rouge officials at the compound next to the Palace (now the site of Kantha Bopha hospital), or for UNTAC spokesperson Eric Fault’s noon-time briefings, where UPI reporter Sue Downey pecked furiously away on her laptop as others dozed off their hangovers.

In the evenings, the draw for journalists and UN workers was the No Problem Café or the Gecko Bar. This was Phnom Penh before the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) and the Lucky Market; a time when the city’s present-day restaurant district across the “Japanese Bridge” was a deserted muddy strip, accessible only by boat because the bridge was still shattered from a sapper raid during the war.

This was a time when The Post’s offices housed not only computers, desks, and filing cabinets but also some of the paper’s most important contributors and sources. Nate Thayer lived there, as did Michael, Kathleen, and Steve Heder. Foreign war correspondents from other eras often slung hammocks on the roof when they came to town, along with Montagnard leaders from North Carolina, who had come to meet FULRO fighters who had surrendered to the UN in Mondulkiri. Coming to work some mornings I’d see Khmer Rouge cadre squatting in the front yard of the office, waiting to talk to Nate.

While Cambodia – and The Phnom Penh Post – have both changed dramatically in the last decade, the reckless but gutsy vision that gave birth to the paper still remains; the latest innovations include “Post Rap News,” where Khmer-speaking rappers deliver the news in rhythmic and rhyming Khmer, punctuated by a backbeat.

Let’s toast The Post and hope that it remains among the vanguard of the country’s press scene for another 25 years!

Sara Colm worked at The Post in 1992 as the paper’s first managing editor. She currently works as an independent research consultant focusing on Southeast Asian affairs.

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