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Saluting Michael Hayes and The Phnom Penh Post

Milton Osborne (right), then 24, with his friend Prince Sisowath Phandaravong at the Queen’s Birthday reception in July 1961.
Milton Osborne (right), then 24, with his friend Prince Sisowath Phandaravong at the Queen’s Birthday reception in July 1961. Photo supplied

Saluting Michael Hayes and The Phnom Penh Post

Milton Osbourne, one of the Kingdom’s pre-eminent historians, recalls a time when The Post was one of the few windows onto Cambodian affairs, and when an annual sit-down with founder Michael Hayes was a ‘mandatory’ refresher

My first encounter with Michael Hayes, and so with The Phnom Penh Post, occurred in 1994, a time when I returned to Phnom Penh after a long, enforced absence. Fittingly I met Michael in The Post’s original headquarters near Wat Botum.

I was far from a newcomer to the city having first lived in Phnom Penh in 1959-60. But in 1994 I was returning to the country for the first time since 1981. Well before arriving in 1994 I had heard of a new, English-language newspaper appearing in Phnom Penh and so soon after arriving I made a beeline to The Post’s offices to meet a rather frazzled Michael and a much more outwardly relaxed Kathleen O’Keefe.

Historian Milton Osborne.
Historian Milton Osborne.

I have vivid memories of their enthusiasm as they battled to keep the newspaper financially afloat, buoyed by the enthusiastic support of a small number of Cambodian associates and the willing, and sometimes unpaid, help of expatriates temporarily in Phnom Penh.

From that time on, as I visited Phnom Penh each year, a call at The Post was mandatory. As best as I can remember, I never encountered Michael at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), even in 1994 when the FCC actually was a location for foreign journalists such as Nate Thayer and James Pringle. But I have happy memories of often later sharing drinks with Michael at the Deauville with his fascinating circle of friends and acquaintances.

For someone who could only visit Cambodia once a year, a conversation with Michael was a wonderful way to be brought up to date, to hear of the inner workings of the government, and of the occasional efforts made by angry ministers to prevent stories appearing in the newspaper. Michael, Kathleen and those who worked with them were courageous upholders of the right of newspapers to tell the truth, carefully documented.

Away from Phnom Penh I became an eager subscriber to The Post, receiving its fortnightly editions printed in Bangkok with remarkably little delay in Sydney. Each issue was a treasure trove of information at a time when the Internet did not serve its contemporary role of providing instant insight and the latest news.

Over the years, I have been very ready to respond to queries from Post journalists, but nothing has given me more pleasure than to accept Michael’s request that I should write an advance obituary for the late King Norodom Sihanouk—pleasure not at the fact of his death, of course, but that I should have been chosen to write such an important piece in Cambodia’s premier journal of record. It is to The Post’s credit that the obituary was printed virtually unchanged from the draft I sent even if some of the judgments in the piece were contrary to the views of other commentators.

The Phnom Penh Post is now a revered institution. Much has changed from its early beginnings in terms of frequency of publication and its size, but the newspaper continues to be a fine example of fearless journalism. It says a great deal about The Post’s character that this description is not shared by many newspapers throughout the rest of Southeast Asia.

Milton Osborne first came to Cambodia in 1959 as a young Australian diplomat and returned regularly to carry out research between 1966 and 1971. In 1980 and 1981 he was a consultant to UNHCR in relation to the Cambodia Refugee Crisis, working along the Cambodian-Thai border. He is the author of 10 books on the history and politics of Southeast Asia, including Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, and Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History. His Southeast Asia: An Introductory History, has been translated into Khmer.

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