Op-Ed: The Economist: Intelligent Life
Nearly 50 years ago, Nicholas Shakespeare’s family was forced to flee Cambodia. Now he and his father return for the first time since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and find ordinary Cambodians enduring a new kind of agony
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013
“IT’S THE SAME STAIRCASE!”
Excited, my father starts climbing it. We are in the air-conditioned residence of America’s ambassador to Phnom Penh, formerly the British embassy. On a humid day in 1964—in an incident unreported at the time because Western journalists were banned—my father walked down this staircase to confront about 1,000 angry students who had come to trash the building. They were acting on instructions from Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The British ambassador, Peter Murray, was away that morning and had left my father, John Shakespeare, the first secretary, in charge. Three days later, Murray sent a confidential despatch back to the foreign secretary, Rab Butler. This year, on the eve of our first visit to Cambodia since our abrupt departure nearly half a century ago, my father found a copy of Murray’s message in a damp cardboard box in his Wiltshire garage, along with letters, receipts, maps and photographs. Murray’s despatch begins: “I regret to report that the official premises of Her Majesty’s Embassy in Phnom Penh were attacked and badly damaged by a mob on the morning of the 11th of March 1964…As for what happened in my absence, I have the honour—and this for once is no formal phrase—to refer you, Sir, to Mr Shakespeare’s account.”
My father, now 82, reaches the top step. He has rarely spoken about his part in Sihanouk’s sacking of our embassy. The details come back as he looks down the staircase.
He remembers crowds of people assembling in the street out of a clear blue sky. “I saw somebody painting on the wall outside the embassy ‘US go home’ and I went and told him, ‘Look, you’ve got the wrong place. The American embassy is down there.’” More people turned up with placards bearing the words “Perfide Albion”, and in one case “Perfide Albino”. The shouts grew louder. My father instructed all the embassy staff, about 20 of them, to go up these stairs, to a safe area where secret papers were kept in a strong room. Then the crowd surged into the grounds.