In early 2012, while riding a bike in Vang Vieng, Laos, with a fellow traveller, a Canadian girl by the name of Natalie Rock, I conceived the idea for this book. Stopping my bike on one of the dusty roads leading out of town, Natalie circled around while I picked up my mobile phone and called Sinarth, whom I had met several weeks before at the Cambodian War Museum in Siem Reap. He responded to my offer to write his biography by saying that he was thinking exactly the same thing and, coincidently, had been just about to call me.
I had always been fascinated with Cambodia through its wondrous temples, the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge period, and its connection with the Vietnam War. The charismatic jet-setting Cambodian, King Sihanouk, a filmmaker, composer and renaissance man, also attracted my attention.
In my country of birth, Australia, it is often not appreciated how much the machinations within Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam affected politics within Australia and other Western countries. There had always been a keen interest in Cambodia due to the work of the Australian expat journalist John Pilger, who made some of the first documentaries on the country’s ruinous state after the Khmer Rouge period ended in early 1979. His investigative journalism did much to dispel Western perceptions that Vietnamese reports of genocide by the Khmer Rouge were propaganda used to defend their invasion.
Previously, in 1975, the Australian Labor government had fallen, in part due to influences from South-East Asian politics. In 1980, recognition of the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s representative in the United Nations disrupted the Australian Liberal government. The frustration and anger of Andrew Peacock, the Australian foreign minister, over both his own party’s agenda and that of the opposition eventually spilled out, this outlined in his April 1981 resignation speech as foreign minister.
Here are some extracts from his speech, referring to Cambodia:
The Cabinet considered the question of the recognition of the Pol Pot regime and decided that there should be no change in the Australian Government’s present policy.
I should explain that the question of recognition of the Pol Pot regime involved questions of principle that were to me of the gravest importance. On moral grounds, on political grounds, on legal grounds, recognition gave an impression of support to a butchering regime which had no effective control of the territory.
Recognition [of the Khmer Rouge regime] was unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Australian citizens. If Australia was to maintain a credible foreign policy and its government to retain the respect of its people, recognition had to be withdrawn. It is axiomatic that Australia has a vital role in Asia. In my view the integrity of Australia’s foreign policy should not be compromised.
On principle I could not remain part of a government committed to recognition of the Pol Pot regime. After the Cabinet meeting I called on the Prime Minister and resigned. I told him that I resigned because I could not sustain a credible foreign policy for this country while we continued recognition of this regime. The Prime Minister [Malcolm Fraser] said that he refused to accept the resignation. I told him that it was not a matter of offer and acceptance; I had resigned.
He added, in the same speech:
Before concluding, I wish to make some points abundantly clear. I oppose the philosophy of those who sit opposite [the Australian Labor Party]. The central tenet of their socialist philosophy and all it would seek to implement is the antithesis of my philosophy and that of the Liberal Party … I joined my party because it was a liberal party, not a conservative party. Liberalism, properly applied, will arrest the polarisation and the social conflict which is testing our country.
All of these national and international political manoeuvrings were certainly interesting but, as always, the ordinary people experienced the reality. This is what made Sinarth’s story so fascinating over and above any words from politicians or academic posturing.
Writing this book entailed countless interviews, over three years, with people in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. It also required numerous journeys with Sinarth, venturing into Cambodia’s countryside and visiting places from his past.
The result is a story of Sinarth’s life, not as a documentary of facts and events, but an emotional interpretation, from childhood through to adulthood. From this perspective, his perception of events was often in conflict with the historical reality. The recollections of these incidents are tempered by time, combined with the Buddhist approach Sinarth learned later in his life from his beloved wife Shrievien, where he was encouraged ‘to let everything go’. This gave him the tools to cope and evade overwhelming trauma, by remembering negative events as positive and skewing memories, allowing him to live well in the present.
An important note is that many separate, though very similar, characters were involved in Sinarth’s life at different times over the forty years covered in this book. For the sake of brevity and through use of poetic licence, I have often combined several people into one character. Many incidents of violent battles, of love and genuine care, I have merged into single events. I have created metaphors for various emotional responses to real situations, inventing scenes at times to communicate those feelings. These aspects are woven together into a single tapestry to tell the story.
Hopefully, this book sheds light on his life’s journey and serves as a cautionary tale, that it could have been any one of us through happenstance placed in his situation.
His story is representative of events experienced by many Cambodian citizens who survived through the Khmer Rouge period and afterwards. Each story is comparable, but every Cambodian completes a different journey.