Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History by Milton Osborne - review by John Shakespeare

John Shakespeare

This Tortured Land

Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History


Signal Books 232pp £12

Rather like No 9 buses, no book on Cambodia appears for years and then two turn up in close succession – and what good books they are, both by ex-diplomats turned academics who are friends from their Cambodian days. Phnom Penh by Professor Milton Osborne of the Australian National University, Canberra is, in spite of the title, a panoramic history of Cambodia as a whole which devotes ample space to the unfolding tragedy of the last fifty years. It is as good an introduction to this fascinating but tortured land as one could wish for. Before the Killing Fields by our own Sir Leslie Fielding, former Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University, with a foreword by Lord Patten, is more narrowly focused, covering the two and a half years that the author spent as Chargé d’Affaires in Phnom Penh from 1964 to 1966, during most of which time the British embassy had been sent to Coventry by the Cambodian head of state, Prince Sihanouk. Fielding gives a gripping account of Cambodia under the mercurial Sihanouk as the shadows closed in. He describes daily life at the beleaguered embassy where he devoted most of his efforts to boosting the morale of his small staff and breaking the ice with Sihanouk. He also treats us to some insights into international diplomacy, as one would expect of the former Director-General of External Relations of the European Commission. He is particularly scathing about the part played in Indo-China by the United States and about the supine role of their British allies.

This is the point at which your reviewer, Fielding’s immediate predecessor at the embassy, makes a brief personal appearance. The book opens with the despatch that I sent back to the Foreign Office describing the events of 11 March 1964, when a mob attacked and ransacked the embassy while I

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