A Newspaper Man in a Bygone Phnom Penh

The first staff meeting of The Cambodia Daily I attended was conducted with grave urgency by the editor, Barton Biggs.

The bulk of the meeting was spent strategizing and preparing for the upcoming visit by the paper’s publisher, Bernard Krisher, who was flying in for one of his occasional visits.

The atmosphere of the meeting teetered between that of kids whose parents were returning from a long weekend away, and soldiers strategizing for the arrival of enemy tanks.

As it happened, something approximating enemy tanks had recently rolled into Phnom Penh—an armored personnel carrier materialized at Independence Monument the night of July 2, 1994. It was a coup attempt. As coup attempts go, it was the equivalent of a firecracker that produces a single spark but never goes bang. Not that I have ever witnessed the equivalent of a bang.

The tension with Krisher, which I assume has existed in some form for the paper’s whole tenure, stems from his desire to give the editors of the paper a free hand in its editorial content—he was an esteemed journalist himself, keen on the virtues of a free press—while at the same time keeping a firm grip on the myriad administrative duties involved in running a paper, all this from Tokyo.

Krisher’s notion was to have vigorous local reporting alongside stories culled from the wire services of The New York Times and Dow Jones. The paper was meant to expand the horizons of its readers.

Who were its readers? Cambodians, expatriates, diplomats, businessmen. Who were its advertisers? Local ads hustled up on the ground on Phnom Penh were (and perhaps still are) augmented by full-page and half-page ads from international companies such as Toyota and Kikkoman.

I have come to be friends with Krisher, and for a number of years we would meet when he came to New York, always at the Harvard club. On a number of occasions, I witnessed him running into a friend or acquaintance and catching up. He would listen politely for a minute or less and then launch into the activities of his various Cambodia-related philanthropies.

Traditionally newspapers are more on the giving end of philanthropy than the receiving, so his emphasis was usually on things other than the Daily. But it underscored the fact that the Daily was—and is—a philanthropy.

I noticed that at some point, his hand would rise up to hold the arm of the person he was talking to, usually just below the elbow, an act of friendship and exuberance, but also a way of telling them that they were going to listen to him until they heard him. They listened. I can’t say for sure what they heard. But when I first saw that hand go to someone’s arm in the Harvard club, I flashed to the full-page ads from Toyota, from Kikkoman. One way or another, there was a hand on someone’s arm for every one of those, I thought.

The dominant event for my generation of Cambodia Daily editors and reporters—1994 through 1996—was the hostage crises that lead to the deaths of three western tourists atop Phnom Voar in Kampot province in the fall of 1994. At least it was the dominant event for me.

The fate of those three guys was a kind of perfect storm of bad luck—the gang that shot up the train they were riding was accustomed to hauling away some pigs and threadbare luggage, and were quite surprised to discover a bounty of ransomable tourists. And just when they were about to dance off with a lot of cash and Rado watches, the KR leadership in the North made it political. So no ransom money, and the hostages all die.

The event had an almost allegorical quality to it. The three backpackers who got pulled off a train heading toward the coast belonged to a gritty, strung out strata of expatriate life in Phnom Penh, the Capital Guest house crowd. But they were nonetheless blurry reflections of Phnom Penh’s expatriate milieu—a milieu that was suddenly overrun by journalists from all over the region who just so happened to have been attending an economic conference in Phnom Penh. They now swarmed into the FCC like a bunch of drunken walruses, flapping and barking, slightly absurd but nevertheless quite capable of their task of gathering information, poking around, and writing it up in the slightly breathless tone of tabloid journalism. The aura of morbid sensationalism hung over the whole affair.

When I arrived in Cambodia, many of the people I met were still absorbing the fate of two of their friends, who had disappeared while driving on Route 3, the road leading South out of Phnom Penh to the coast. They were a young couple who had opened a restaurant in Sihanoukville. They had vanished in April, and I arrived just in time to hear confirmation that their remains had been found near the road.

I remember visiting the home of an attractive young couple, British, whose child, an adopted Cambodian, was jumping around the living room. We chatted sociably for a while; we were getting to know one another. Then a friend of theirs dropped in. His name was Paul, an Australian. He was a taciturn guy with a smoldering violence about him. Paul and my hosts had been friends with the vanished couple. Just a few weeks earlier their bodies had been found. Sitting around with Paul the mood turned; it was no longer about entertaining a newcomer, and the feeling of terrible silence that follows a death filled the room figuratively, embodied for me by a plume of smoke that rose in silence from Paul’s cigarette. After a few minutes, he said he needed to “get some kip,” and retired to a room in the back for a nap.

The fate of the dead couple confirmed my feeling that it would be foolish to venture out of Phnom Penh. But I also thought it was foolish to venture into Phnom Penh. I lived in a heightened state of fear in those first days. I walked through the park in front of the Royal Palace careful to stay on the tic tac toe geometry of the cement paths for fear there was a landmine embedded in the squares of lawn.

The transition from gawking, trembling tourist to weathered old hand took about as long—then and I am sure now—as one side of French toast.

A few months after the news of the kidnapping of the three tourists, after the initial rush of horror and adrenaline subsided and the walruses swam back to their home turf in various Asean capitals, I found myself going down Route 3 to see what was going on with the alleged military maneuvers at the base of the mountain.

I had been coaxed into this trip by Barton Biggs.

My destination was Kampot, at the time off-limits to foreigners because of skirmishes along Route 3. My accomplice and translator was a fairly new member of the Daily, Ek Madra. It is one of the peculiar ironies of expatriate journalism that the person with whom a journalist will become most familiar and friendly is often their translator.

In the Cambodian context I suppose Sydney Schanberg and the recently deceased Dith Pran set the bar for such things, though while I am mentioning them I should add that I know there is a contingent of artist-journo-exoplorers, ranging from Al Rockoff to writers like William Vollman, who would scoff at this cloistered outlook.

Madra was feeling much more engaged with the situation than I. The town seemed like a kind of Shangri-La, dusty and quiet, filled with gorgeous, bullet-pocked, French Colonial architecture fronting a whispering river lined with benches. I wanted to have lunch and stare at the river. I was in a state of shock that I had made the trip, a state of shock that this town, which I had heard about exclusively in the grim context of the hostage crisis, should be so beautiful. Madra was more practical-minded and dragged me to the military base, where, energized by the presence of soldiers and guns, I interviewed a general and his aides about their plans.

My two days down in that town were clotted with the experience of strangeness and beauty, and I have struggled for the past 15 years to try and render it in fiction or personal history with no success. This isn’t an occasion for a breakthrough on that front.

I will say I had the sense that Cambodia was a bounty, but that even for the relatively innocent voyeurs like myself, there was going to be a tiny penalty for its plundering, which in my case has been an inability to get across the experience, what I saw, what it felt like. For others, the penalty has been steeper.

I never saw a copy of The Cambodia Daily before I arrived in Phnom Penh in July 1994. When I saw the Daily for the first time, it looked like a flimsy, temporary thing. Newsprint is famously temporary—used to wrap fish, or pick up dog poop at the end of the day. The physical object is not meant to last. The continuity comes from the name on top of the front page.

The front page of a serious newspaper that combines local news with international news, feature stories with straight reporting, is mundane and yet miraculous, one of the amenities of modern life one can take for granted, like perfectly clear water than runs from a tap. When I arrived in Phnom Penh you couldn’t drink the water, but there was the Daily.

A glance at the front page of those first issues I was part of, revealed a sensibility familiar to any newspaper reader, yet in some ways profoundly counter-intuitive.

“Coup Convoy Launched From Thai Owned Quarry,” leads the July 13, 1994 issue.

The piece, written by Robert Bingham, who was frantically catching up on the one-spark coup story, having missed the actual event while roaming Battambang, contains the information that the quarry was said to be owned by a Bangkok-based businessman, Bun Ta Lit.

Another story on that front was about Taiwanese investment in China, which quotes an impressively un-precient Taiwanese businessman saying that, “I would never put a dime in China.” A third story concerns Haitian human rights abuses.

Even a few years ago I would likely have dwelt on certain idiosyncratic details of that front page—the photograph of two workers standing beneath the sign for the Koya gravel pit, taken by Matthew Roberts, shows two smiling men standing beneath a sign with no letters, as though the paint was some kind of vampire concoction that was not visible in pictures.

But now I am struck by the juxtaposition of these stories, the scope of their concerns. All the issues from the years I was in and out of the Daily’s pages are filled with incredible muckraking zeal juxtaposed with the cool reported tone relaying other events of global importance or local color from far-off places.

It was an unlikely enterprise. When I first encountered the Daily, the concept of an English language daily newspaper in Phnom Penh seemed like a folly, decorative and romantic. Fifteen years after its founding, it retains this feeling of being an unlikely folly but for different reasons.

When it started, Phnom Penh was an implausible city, built on bones, ruins, with minimal infrastructure, and most people took newspapers, as a an institution and a business model, for granted.

Now Phnom Penh is the plausible part of the equation, and it is newspapers—their business models under assault from the Internet—whose future cannot be taken for granted.

I have a friend who is a reporter for the New York Daily News. She took a two-week vacation this summer and, when she returned to the newsroom, exclaimed, “You’re still here!” It was meant to be a joke, but no one laughed.

The Cambodia Daily is still here.

   (Thomas Beller is a contributing editor at the Cambodia Daily. His books include a novel, The Sleep-Over Artist, which was a New York Times Notable Book and an LA Times Best Book of 2000. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Short Stories, and numerous anthologies.)

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