From the end of 1974 until the beginning of 1975, when I was 18, I lived in Cambodia for about six months during the war against the Khmer Rouge. During my stay in Cambodia, I tried to make a living teaching English as a second language. The first couple of months were quite difficult as I didn’t have very many students and I almost didn’t have enough money, to feed myself. In a two-month period, due to a bout of malaria and lack of food I lost 10 kg (about 22 lbs). During this lean time I had made the acquaintance of the first secretary of the Australian consulate, a Mr Dixon. Mr Dixon (unfortunately I can’t remember his first name) could see the straits that I was in. I guess he felt a bit sorry for me, and since he had a government supplied house complete with a gardener, chauffeur, security guard and cook, he would invite me around the dinner, and also to the occasional consulate do.
On one occasion I was invited to a barbecue at the consulate for Australia Day (26th of January) in 1975 . On the invitation, it said come dressed casually. In my minds eye, I had envisaged a bunch of the egalitarian Australians standing around a fire with steaks on the end of sticks, barbecuing their own meat with a beer in the other hand, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and thongs (also known as flip-flops or jandles). Just like back home.
It came as quite a surprise to me as I turned up at the consulate dressed in a tattered old T-shirt and frayed jeans to be sat at a long, linen covered table, set with heavy silverware, next to the uniformed militarily attaché. There were about 40 of us seated at the table, which was outside next to a large swimming pool. When the food was served it was brought to us by uniformed staff, who dished out the French style food with silver service. All the other men who were at the “barbecue”, with the exception of the military attaché, were dressed in polyester safari suits. I guess in diplomatic circles, safari suits are considered casual, and barbecue was code for alfresco dining. Opposite me at the table were my friend Mr Dixon and his secretary. I was later told that Mr Dixon had made sure I was sitting next to the military attaché because he knew I would provide some entertainment, as I drove him crazy with anti-Vietnam-war talk. As a matter of fact, the military attaché was quite annoyed that I’d managed to dodge conscription by being out of the country traveling. He also opined that it would probably do somebody like me a bit of good to be under some military discipline for a couple of years. I was definitely the youngest, scruffiest, noisiest thing at the table, and I’m sure the military attaché would have liked to punch my empty head in.
I felt that I had infiltrated an alternative world. Making a living wasn’t difficult for these people, as they all had profitable diplomatic jobs or positions in non-government aid organizations. The life of well-paid expats in Third World countries is redolent of the life led by the British Raj, as they all had servants and chauffeurs to smooth the way through the ubiquitous soirees and heat. I envied them.
The conversation around the table was fascinating to someone like me. One fellow, from the British Embassy was telling us about one of the new guys at his work, who had scandalized Phnom Penh diplomatic circles by making the great faux pas of turning up to a diplomatic event drunk and in the company of two hookers. Another guest at the table was telling us how Cambodia had become a brass exporter, because Lon Nol’s wife had arranged for much of the artillery ammunition supplied by the Americans to be fired, just outside of the city, so they could get the brass casings and sell them. There was also talk, about an Australian persona non-grata who had worked as a mercenary for the Cambodian government forces.
I had met the guy who they were talking about and I asked him why he had worked as a mercenary. He told me that he met the owner of a plantation that was now under Khmer Rouge control. The mercenary (I can’t remember his name) said that he had been promised a job as a supervisor, after the war if the government forces won, if he could help the plantation owner train his personal squad of men to fight. I asked him how it went and he said it was a total shambles. Apparently there was absolutely no discipline, and all the Cambodian soldiers under his command were conscripts who didn’t really understand why they were there and they were impossible to control. He told me one time that when he was out on patrol in a rice paddy that a Khmer Rouge soldier broke from his position and ran across the field in front of them, only about a hundred meters away, and that all his soldiers opened fire, and that all 20 or 30 of them missed as they sprayed bullets in every direction until their magazines were empty.
I’ve seen evidence of this sort of thing when I was in Phnom Penh myself. One day when I was in my hotel room, not far from the central market, I heard a series of rifle shots. About 5 shots in quick succession were fired, so I ran out on my balcony to see a group of about three soldiers shooting at a man fleeing from them. The fleeing man went around the corner and then down a lane that I knew was very narrow, and I felt the sure they would get him as I heard about another 10 shots being fired. I quickly grabbed my camera and ran downstairs and then to the lane, fully expecting to see some triumphant soldiers standing around a body in the lane. But no, every single shot had missed. As somebody who’s been in the army cadets and been trained to shoot, I couldn’t believe that so many shots would have missed, particularly in the narrow lane. On reflection, I’m even more amazed that none of the bystanders in the streets were shot.
Over the years often thought of the kindness that Mr Dixon showed me and I’ve tried to track him down, without any luck, to thank him.