In the aftermath of the Jan 29 anti-Thai rioting, Roland Eng, Cambodia’s ambassador to the US, wanted to ensure there were no hard feelings with his Thai counterpart, Sakthip Krairiksh.
So on Jan 30, Eng wrote a letter to Sakthip on embassy stationery—addressed to “Your Excellency, Dear Friend.”
“I have spent the past few days calling as many Thai friends as possible to convey my sincere apologies and profound regret for the harm that has been done to the noble Thai people,” Eng wrote. “I also cannot hide how shameful I feel before such uncivilized behavior demonstrated by the rioters.”
To Eng, the letter was an overture of peace to a cherished friend. To King Norodom Sihanouk, it was “an act of unpardonable national treason.”
In extremely strong language, King Sihanouk, writing in the margins of a copy of Eng’s letter on Feb 6, harshly criticized the longtime diplomat—who also happens to be the brother of the King’s daughter-in-law Princess Norodom Marie Ranariddh.
“This letter very seriously dishonors the Kingdom of Cambodia, its King, its People, its Government and makes the Khmer Nation lose face and dignity,” King Sihanouk wrote. “This offense of Mr Roland Eng is extremely serious.”
The King’s remarks, in his slanting French cursive handwriting, fill every bit of available space on the page.
He allowed that “some Khmers did commit extremely serious offenses against Thailand and its very great King” on the night of Jan 29. “The Royal Government of Cambodia is already working to convey its regrets to the Royal Government of Thailand,” King Sihanouk wrote.
“But Mr Roland Eng took the initiative to abase himself, to prostrate himself before the Thai Ambassador and his Wife, to lick their feet, humiliating and dragging through the mud his own compatriots, his own race.
“This is an act of unpardonable national treason.”
By the time the King unleashed his fury, Eng had already been reprimanded by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, but in far milder terms. The minister’s Feb 2 letter soberly instructs Eng that it is not his place to take a position on an issue before consulting headquarters in Phnom Penh.
In particular, “Our Royal Government has expressed REGRET, but we have not issued an APOLOGY,” Hor Namhong wrote.
In addition, the minister said Eng had “used a word that disrespects our people, that is, UNCIVILIZED.”
Hor Namhong added, “You are an Ambassador, writing on official stationery and in your capacity as Ambassador, but you have taken a stance different from the official stance of the government.”
Hor Namhong’s letter does not say whether Eng would be subject to any sort of punishment as a result of the letter, although the minister did write that he was “preparing instructions.”
Eng did not reply to e-mailed queries this week, and several officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they were not aware of the matter. Hor Namhong could not be reached.
Eng did respond to Hor Namhong’s letter, however. While thanking the minister for “giving me proper instructions about the [government’s] stance,” this letter did not rescind Eng’s earlier statements.
The word “uncivilized,” Eng wrote, was meant to refer only to the “small number of extremists” on whom the government has blamed the riots. Eng had written to the Thai ambassador “only as a friend,” he said.
In addition, Eng said, his letter was meant to avert the possibility of demonstrations at the Cambodian or Thai embassies in Washington.
To the King, Eng’s attempts to explain fell short. “An unacceptable plea,” King Sihanouk wrote at the end of Roland Eng’s response. “It’s shameful.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)