Letter to the Editor: Reports on ‘3 Missing Deputies’ Not ‘Intellectual Dishonesty’

My attention has been drawn to a letter to the editor by Julio Jeldres “Comparing Prince Sihanouk to Present Government a Failed Endeavor” (September 26). In his article, he chooses to quote from one critical review of my 1994 book, “Sihanouk: Prince of Darkness, Prince of Light,” as a way of invalidating my status as a commentator on Cambodian affairs. I leave it to others to reach their own conclusions. But I will remark that it has long been clear that my view of Norodom Sihanouk’s career does not accord with that of the late king’s “official biographer,” a title that suggests there is only one, officially sanctioned way to write about the biographer’s subject. This is, of course, a position that I do not accept. My most recent considered summary of the late Cambodian leader’s life may be found in the extended obituary published in The Phnom Penh Post on October 17, 2012.

—Letter to the Editor—

While I have no interest in engaging in an extended polemical debate with Mr. Jeldres, I cannot allow the treatment in his article of my discussion of the disappearance of Khieu Samphan, Hou Youn and Hu Nim in 1967 to go unchallenged. Mr. Jeldres questions my “intellectual honesty” in reporting, as I did, that there was a widespread assumption in Cambodia at the time that the so-called “three missing deputies” had been murdered on the orders of the then-Prince Sihanouk without “first checking its accuracy.”

As an individual who carried out research in Cambodia every year between 1966 and 1971, I was well placed to report on the existence of this assumption. This was a period of increasing challenge to the regime from the left. It was a time when Prince Sihanouk threatened, in 1967, to execute “Khmer Reds,” in the same way as he had done with right-wing Khmer Serei and when he later boasted, in 1968, of having personally ordered the summary execution of 200 rebels in northeastern Cambodia.

But I was far from alone in recording the presence of this assumption about the regime’s involvement in the deputies’ disappearance. Charles Meyer, Sihanouk’s former adviser, writes in his book, “Derriere le sourire khmer,” or “Behind the Khmer Smile,” that, given the record of the security services, “it was not surprising that public opinion immediately accused Colonel Oum Mannorine [Sihanouk’s brother-in-law] of having assassinated [Hou Youn and Khieu Samphan]”—Hu Nim disappeared soon after. In his “The Tragedy of Cambodian History,” David Chandler notes that when the three leftist deputies disappeared, “it was widely assumed in Phnom Penh that they had been killed.” It is also worth noting that Beijing Radio provided a detailed account of the execution of the missing deputies.

The fact that the three deputies had gone into the maquis rather than being executed was not resolved to my satisfaction until well after Sihanouk had been deposed in 1970, not least because the Cambodian Ambassador to the U.N., Khim Tit, was reported in The New York Times on August 22, 1971, as saying that he had seen a security document confirming the execution of the deputies; Khieu Samphan had been burned to death with acid, while Hou Yuon and Hu Nim were crushed to death under a bulldozer. It was only in 1972 that I was shown photographic evidence that convinced me the three deputies were probably alive, and this fact I recorded in my book, “Politics and Power in Cambodia: The Sihanouk Years.”

Milton Osborne, Sydney

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