Australian Author in Country To Promote Book on Phnom Penh

A few days before his 23rd birthday, in April 1959, Milton Osborne arrived in Cambodia to work at the Australian Embassy.

The country’s architects were at work building up Phnom Penh, but farmers were still growing crops where Mao Tse Toung Boulevard runs today, he said. “It was, in terms of its appearance and size, in many ways a different city,” with a total population of about 500,000, Osborne said, compared to the approximately 2 million inhabitants of today. He remained for two and a half years.

In the following decades, Os­borne, now 72, became one of Southeast Asia’s leading historians and researchers. He is a visiting fellow at the Lowy Ins­titute for International Policy in Sydney and an adjunct professor of Asian Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

He landed in Phnom Penh on Thursday for a weeklong visit coinciding with the launch of his 10th book—his fifth on Cambo­dia—“Phnom Penh, a Cultural and Literary History.”

The book is part of the series “Cities of the Imagination,” by British publisher Signal Books, meant to reflect cities’ personalities, Osborne said. This he did by covering Phnom Penh’s history going back two millennia, its architecture and even mentions of the city in Western books such as John le Carre’s spy thriller “The Honorable Schoolboy.”

Up until the days of the French Protectorate, when the city be­came the country’s permanent ca­pital in the mid-19th century, Phnom Penh’s main role had been as a commercial center in the highly complex trading network of Southeast Asia, Osborne said.

Recalling the city he had first known 49 years ago, he said that although Phnom Penh was being developed at the time, “the city as a whole did not have the air of being under construction in the way that it currently has. And of course, until very recently there were no high-rise buildings. That’s really a very recent development indeed.”

In his works, Osborne has not shied away from offering criticism. In his 1994 book “Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Dark­ness,” he took issue with then-Prince Noro­dom Sihanouk’s management style in the 1960s. In his 2000 book “The Mekong: Turbu­lent Past, Uncertain Fu­ture,” he describes Phnom Penh as “a city with a split personality. Wealth and poverty sit side by side.”

However, during an interview Friday, Osborne refrained from commenting on Cambodia’s government or its political climate. “I have an old-fashioned view,” he said, “that, as a tourist visitor to Cambodia, it is not my place as a tourist to be a commentator on contemporary Cambodian politics.”

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