The year was 1957, and Cambodia was in the first stages of an economic boom that would bring the country prosperity in the 1960s.
French-controlled Indochina had officially been dissolved in 1954, and an international commission with representatives from India, Canada and Poland was charged with monitoring Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos’ transitions to independence.
A 21-year-old named Kazimierz Duchowski, fresh out of the Foreign Service School in Warsaw, was sent by his government to serve as an English/Polish interpreter in Vietnam.
For 18 months, the young diplomat, who had never set foot in Asia before, traveled in the jungle on horseback and on foot with inspectors checking on illegal arms shipments along the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam where war would later erupt.
“I was sent to the most dangerous places, and I loved every minute of it,” Duchowski recalled this week.
Four decades after that first heady introduction to Asia, Duchowski landed the position of charge d’affaires to Cambodia at the Polish Embassy in Phnom Penh.
Until 1999 the Polish Embassy in Hanoi was still handling relations with Cambodia, and Duchowski began lobbying to re-establish an ambassadorial post in Phnom Penh. In 2002, he became Cambodia’s Polish ambassador, and after six years of service he is leaving his post and retiring on June 30.
“Cambodian-Polish relations practically did not exist,” Duchowski said, recounting his arrival in 2002.
Trade between the two countries amounted to less than $20,000 worth of Polish goods exported to Cambodia and about $1 million in Cambodian exports to Poland, he said.
In 2004, Cambodia exported $4.06 million worth of goods, such as clothes and shoes, to Poland, and Poland shipped $10.06 million worth of products—tobacco, machine parts and lighting equipment—to Cambodia.
Reflecting on today’s situation in Cambodia, Duchowski said that the government “has clear strategies to reform practically every sphere of life in the country.”
“There are many programs for judicial and legal reforms, beautifully printed. The problem is fulfillment—who could do more to speed up their implementation and how?” he asked.
Still, Duchowski remains optimistic that this will be accomplished.
Regarding the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders, the question is who will it satisfy and at what cost, he said.
“As a friend of Cambodia, I think that (at $53 million) this is too much money to sentence so few people.”
Spent wisely, it might benefit more Cambodians while a local trial would be much cheaper.
“I don’t see why the Cambodian courts could not handle it since the accused cannot get less than a life sentence. But I cannot speak for the Cambodian people,” he said.
One of Duchowski’s last official duties will be to attend a ceremony today to change the name of a street. The road bearing the Soviet-era name for Poland, Polish People’s Republic Street, will be changed to Republic of Poland Street to reflect the current name of the departing ambassador’s country.