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


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.

"We heard the most appalling thumping coming from the garden, and realised they were attacking our cars. They had started a bonfire with our spare wheel and petrol can. Rocks and bricks came smashing through the windows and, most terrifying of all, deep-frozen legs of lamb. They had opened the giant freezer on the ground floor."

Upstairs, everyone was frightened—the women cowering and in tears, and one or two of the men hiding away in a corner. "Then I realised it’s now or never, I’ve really got to go and establish human contact with these people, so I went out onto the landing and, feeling rather like General Gordon at Khartoum, I sort of walked up to the crowd and spoke to two men in suits who were clearly the leaders."

My father said this had gone on long enough, and would they please now let the staff leave the building: "Il y a des jeunes filles ici dedans qui ont très, très peur." The two men looked at each other. He felt a sign pass between them, and then they turned round and indicated to the crowd, who started grumblingly to go back downstairs. "It was the most relieved moment of my life."

The wrecking of the British embassy was, in hindsight, a pivotal moment in Cambodia’s history. It had been ordered by Sihanouk, the petulant head of state, after Britain obstructed his long-held desire for an international conference to guarantee Cambodia’s neutrality. In his project to keep out of the war next door in Vietnam, Sihanouk had pressed for Britain and Russia, the two co-chairmen, to reconvene the Geneva Conference which had endorsed Cambodia’s independence in 1954. To this end, only six weeks before the attack, in a dotty and ultimately futile gesture, Sihanouk had invited my father to join him on a sudden "peace mission" to Malaysia and Indonesia. Sihanouk hoped that if he used his influence in the region to diffuse Indonesia’s hostility towards newly independent Malaysia, then a grateful Britain would accede to his request.

What my father’s papers reveal is that for a tantalising moment it looked as though Britain would comply, and the conference was set to take place in Geneva in April 1964. My father, the go-between, wrote on February 3rd at the end of Sihanouk’s mission: "Largely because of our agreement to his conference on the neutralisation of Cambodia, and partly I suspect because of my own presence in his party, Sihanouk went out of his way to make glowing references to the British." But days after Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh, Britain caved in under pressure from America and refused to go ahead. My father expressed his disappointment in a private letter: "Our government continues to behave abominably, not daring to take any step without first getting permission from Washington, and as a result we are now being even more bitterly attacked by Sihanouk than the Americans for doing the Americans’ dirty work for them." The sacking of the embassy was the upshot.

My father goes down the staircase, and as we step outside into the heat another memory assails him. He points to the spot, grassed over now, where he was ruefully going through the wreckage, looking at his upturned Ford Zephyr, when a large black limousine from the palace appeared, and a smartly dressed man climbed out carrying a parcel.

"I am looking for Mr Shakespeare."

"I am Mr Shakespeare."

"I have this package from Monseigneur [as Sihanouk was known]."

Elaborately wrapped inside a gift of Cambodian silverware was a deliberately pre-dated letter from Sihanouk expressing his appreciation of my father’s "valuable assistance" on his recent peace mission, and his pleasure at welcoming to Phnom Penh "a young diplomat of an obvious capacity to approach complex Asian problems with an open mind, and animated by a sincere desire to understand them".

In a series of staccato images, I remember my father, a non-smoker, unpacking the silver smoking-set in our modern French-style house (rented off Sihanouk’s deputy and soon-to-be-usurper, General Lon Nol; my mother gave English lessons there to Sihanouk’s mother, a dumpy woman in a diamond pendant who was said to own the best brothel in town). I remember my father saying that the head of the British Council’s home had been destroyed, and we would have to leave Phnom Penh. I remember waving goodbye to our gardener, Hem, and climbing into the back of a Land Rover with a suitcase, on which I perched for the journey to the Thai border, and catching a last sight of Phnom Penh, receding through the canvas flap like a stage set.

On our return, my father was hoping to see Sihanouk, but we were told that he was having medical treatment in Beijing, where he had lived since abdicating in 2004. After seeing his old office, my father is compelled to reflect. Had Sihanouk’s cherished peace conference taken place and guaranteed Cambodia’s neutrality, the history of the region might have unravelled less murderously. Henry Kissinger might have balked at secretly bombing it—an action that killed up to half a million Cambodians and drove a traumatised population into the arms of Pol Pot, who went on to kill a further 2.2m, including five of Sihanouk’s 14 children—and Hem.

We were not the only ones to leave Phnom Penh in response to Sihanouk’s rabble-rousing. In a last-ditch bid to retain his failing neutrality, he lashed out at his enemies on the left as well as the right. Fleeing to the jungles from 1963 onwards were a marginalised group of mainly Paris-educated communists whom Sihanouk later dubbed "the Khmer Rouge".

Picture: Growing up outside Phnom Penh. In 2006 Cambodia’s government uprooted 1,300 families from Phnom Penh and dumped them in an open field—to make way for a shopping mall, which has yet to be built