Keat Chhon has been called many things in his long life: humble, prudent, intelligent and a traitor.
No wonder French diplomat Jean-Daniel Gardere decided to title his biography of the politician “Les 4 vies de l’etonnant M. Keat Chhon,” or “The Four Lives of the Amazing Mr. Keat Chhon.”
This is a man who had, during a 50-year career, played a role in one government after another, from the 1960s through the 2000s, until he finally retired a year ago, at the age of 81, from his last position of permanent deputy prime minister in the CPP government.
“Keat Chhon crossed, at a ringside seat if not center stage, a confused era sometimes merry, often horrific,” Mr. Gardere said in an interview. “He served under nearly all political regimes and country’s leaders, except for Lon Nol. Due to his talent and intelligence, plus the prudence he is known for, he served and survived.”
Mr. Gardere is certainly right about his last comment. Mr. Chhon is a survivor. He managed to navigate, unscathed, some of the most turbulent times in Cambodia’s history, sidestepping pitfalls that felled others, astutely knowing where to place his allegiances and how to deal with the egos of different leaders.
Toward the end of his book, Mr. Gardere reveals that he had meant to title the work “La traversee,” or “The Crossing,” to reflect this ability to transcend political change.
“I did not want anything grandiloquent to evoke a journey of more than 50 years through political upheavals and massacres, among leaders who kept on competing and collaborating…betraying and sometimes assassinating each other while exchanging a thousand praises and professing one’s loyalty,” he writes.
In the end, he opted for the alternative title for his 505-page book. Released last year by L’Harmattan, it is based on 100 or so hours of interviews that Mr. Gardere had with his subject.
Having met him through the French Embassy—Mr. Gardere played an important role for French international trade in several countries, including Cambodia—the author was fascinated by the journey of a man who rose from a small village on the banks of the Mekong River in Kratie province to a public life that included being involved in the construction of Olympic Stadium, serving as rector of Kampong Cham University and working with the U.N., and holding key political roles, such as that of finance minister for nearly a decade.
In the book, Mr. Chhon tells his story with Mr. Gardere adding information here and there to explain the situation in the country at the time, putting what he says into context or even questioning some of his comments or observations.
Mr. Chhon was born in 1934 in the small village of Phum Thmei. Growing up in a modest family of Chinese ancestry, his early memories include picking wild turtle eggs on the Mekong beaches and watching a large population of dolphins follow their small boats on the river.
First attending the village pagoda’s school, he went at the age of 8 to the “French school” with its one teacher and wooden classroom. He later transferred to a larger school in the nearby town of Chhlong and, at 13 or 14, was admitted at the Sihanouk College in Kompong Cham City. “This was the first provincial college,” he told Mr. Gardere. “I was among the youngest in the class. This new adventure was really something.”
In 1951, he moved to Phnom Penh to attend the Lycee Sisowath, one of the country’s leading secondary schools. Unlike the students from wealthy families who attended the Rene Descartes high school in the city, those at Lycee Sisowath tended to be from modest families and had earned, with outstanding grades, the privilege of being there, Mr. Chhon says. One of their “biggest luxuries” was to going the U.S. Embassy’s library. “For us, who had been raised as having to depend on the French school system, wholly focused on learning a far-away culture on which we were politically dependent, America was like another planet.”
In 1954, Mr. Chhon headed for France, having obtained a student grant. At first, adapting to classes and life in Paris with a very limited budget proved difficult. Still, he managed, he said. Among Cambodian students, left-wing political theories and principles were circulating—future Khmer Rouge leaders such as Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan were students in France at the time. Although attracted by communist principles, he chose not to join the Cambodian Marxist groups.
In 1958, he decided to pursue two diplomas, one in marine engineering and the other in mathematics and physics. Two years later, he obtained his diploma in nuclear engineering and a research grant from the French nuclear-energy authority.
In the meantime, he had married—without family consent—Lay Neari, a Cambodian of Vietnamese heritage studying science at university. They would remain together throughout all the political storms of the following decades.
In 1961, he returned to Cambodia with his wife and baby daughter. Suspected of leftist leanings, he was turned down from a university teaching post and a job at the country’s power company—positions reviewed by government officials—and ended up in public works. “At least there, they probably thought, while carrying stones and sand, my engineering skills could be used without the risk of my manipulating the country’s young minds,” he says.
But then, Mr. Chhon started to shine in public works such as the construction of National Road 6 along the Mekong River. He was involved in the construction of the railroad tracks between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, and the Olympic Stadium. Designed by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, the stadium’s construction turned into a major challenge because the site was, in fact, a swamp, Mr. Chhon recalls.
All this drew the attention of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was ruling Cambodia as the head of the country’s sole political party, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum. In 1964, Mr. Chhon was named rector of Kampong Cham University, the country’s first university outside Phnom Penh. He had to set it up from scratch including building the classrooms.
The university was inaugurated in 1966.
“My biggest regret is that only the first class’s students were able to obtain their diplomas,” Mr. Chhon says in the book. “The university was actually bombarded on April 28, 1970 by the U.S.-South Vietnamese air force a few weeks before Lon Nol seized power. It was truly absurd but they took it for a Vietcong base.”
When Prince Sihanouk was removed as head of state through parliamentary vote in March 1970 by the Lon Nol government and accepted China’s offer to settle in Beijing as the head of the Khmer Rouge fighting the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime, Mr. Chhon, who had become industry secretary of state in 1967, decided to join him.
Beside the fact that he had been working for his government for several years, he had many old friends among the Khmer Rouge. In addition, he could not forgive Lon Nol for ordering the killing of thousands of people from a Vietnamese background in the early weeks of his regime—his wife and son were still in the country at the time. And he could not forget the Kampong Cham University bombing.
Mr. Chhon was assigned to the staff of Prince Sihanouk, accompanying him when he traveled to Hanoi or visited parts of Cambodia under Khmer Rouge control in 1973. And then, in March 1975, he headed for Cambodia with Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary and seven young intellectuals as the Khmer Rouge were about to seize control of the country, with no idea where he would be sent. He would remain under scrutiny throughout the regime because his wife was Vietnamese—a capital crime for the Khmer Rouge, who would turn and kill the Vietnamese who had supported them since the 1950s.
Until the fall of the regime in January 1979, Mr. Chhon worked at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, known as B1, under Ieng Sary—who died during his trial at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2013. “The blind acceptance of the upper echelon’s directives and affirmations was depicted as the upmost virtue for any partisan of the revolution,” Mr. Chhon recalls. “Combined with the effects of hunger and physical exhaustion, the repetition of propaganda messages, political meetings, auto-critic sessions worked on our minds with the effect of narcotics. One does not reason that much as a free man with an empty stomach.”
Mr. Chhon says he would later learn that he and his wife and two children had been slated to be arrested and taken to the S-21 extermination camp—also known as Tuol Sleng—on January 10, 1979. So he owes his life to the Vietnamese forces and the Cambodian contingent who seized Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.
On January 6, 1979, as the Khmer Rouge were about to flee the capital to the Thai border, Mr. Chhon accompanied Prince Sihanouk to Beijing. He later settled at the Khmer Rouge outpost along the Thai border.
During a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Cuba in September 1979, Mr. Chhon had his first contact with current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was foreign minister of the Phnom Penh government at the time. At the meeting, Mr. Hun Sen delivered a letter to him detailing the fate of his relatives in Cambodia. Strangely enough, the five-page letter contained no comment as to the political positioning of the various Cambodian factions, Mr. Chhon recalls. “It was human and very clever,” he says.
In 1983, Mr. Chhon decided to remain in Paris, where he had been sent for a Unesco meeting as his wife and children were then safely out of the reach of the Khmer Rouge. “I had a diplomatic passport. I did not seek asylum, and I did not make sensational declarations.” He looked for a job but, now in his 50s, this proved difficult, he said. Nevertheless, he eventually found a position in a small engineering firm dealing with Southeast Asia.
Then in 1988, he was hired by the U.N. to run an economic development project in Zaire. He would remain in that country for four years.
As for why Mr. Chhon joined the CPP so wholeheartedly when he returned to the country in 1992, he does not really explain in the book.
He had met Mr. Hun Sen in 1987 and 1988 prior to Mr. Hun Sen’s meetings with Prince Sihanouk—meetings that led to the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in October 1991. So when Mr. Chhon returned to Cambodia in late 1992 to work on a U.N. project, Mr. Hun Sen, who had been prime minister for several years, named him as a government adviser.
He was soon admitted as a CPP party member. “Actually, having never turned against what was at the root of my left-wing commitment—national sovereignty and social justice…this adhesion could seem a regularization,” he says.
Elected as CPP deputy for Kompong Cham province, Mr. Chhon would hold several government positions, heading the Finance and Economy Ministry from 1994 until 2013.
In their 2003 “Historical Dictionary of Cambodia,” researchers Justin Corfield and Laura Summers wrote of him: “One of the most experienced technocrats in the government, he has succeeded in imposing greater budgetary controls on spending for years.”
Mr. Chhon retired from his position of permanent deputy prime minister in March last year.
The profile that emerges from the book is that of an intelligent man who made decisions based on logic rather than convictions, coldly analyzing situations. Imbued with the left-wing ideals of equal rights and social reform shared by Cambodian intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s who tended to oppose Prince Sihanouk’s rule, he nonetheless joined his government in the 1960s. While some of his friends were being hunted by the authorities were fleeing to North Vietnam to avoid prison if not summary execution, Mr. Chhon was overseeing government projects.
The only time he seemed to have been driven by feelings instead of logic was when he stood against the Lon Nol regime and joined Prince Sihanouk in Beijing, who had become the head of the Khmer Rouge he had previously hunted.
What comes out of the book is that his decision was in reaction to the killing of Vietnamese by the Lon Nol government and his fear for the lives of his wife and their younger child, a son, who were still in the country.
As for Mr. Gardere, writing this voluminous work was a way to look into troubled decades of Cambodia history and the difficult choices people were forced to make through the story of a man, he said.
On the man himself, he said of Mr. Chhon, “Well before I knew his ‘amazing journey, the brief work relations I had had with him had showed me an exceptional personality: putting an extreme courtesy, the greatest flexibility and a fair amount of humor as well to accomplish what he believed had to be done or decided. He knows with the utmost subtlety when to act and when to wait before acting.”
Phay Siphan, Council of Ministers spokesman, described Mr. Chhon yesterday as “brilliant…with qualities of leadership and humble.”
“A conservative technocrat,” he said, “he earned a lot of respect from the government and also people.”
While an international historian described him as “equivocal to say the least,” In Sopheap, an engineer who worked alongside Mr. Chhon at B-1 during the Khmer Rouge regime and was on the Khmer Rouge staff at the U.N. in the early 1980s, was less complimentary.
“Mr. Gardere has suggested a reason why Keat Chhon accepted to co-produce this novel-biography, that is, ‘fighting the accusation of opportunism that some people are bestowing on him,’” he wrote after reading the book.
He goes on to apparently suggest Mr. Chhon is guilty of “treason” saying, “In my humble opinion, treason is not so much the abandonment of companions in the struggle when difficulties and dangers incurred become real and unbearable, as their abandonment for a disgraceful life or to realize unscrupulous goals with a well thought plan when other alternatives are available.”
What history will one day make of Mr. Chhon and his place in Cambodia’s legacy remains to be seen. Posterity will tell.
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