An annual series of events around the world under the umbrella of European Heritage Days had escaped me until this year, but last Saturday’s activities in Phnom Penh allowed me and hundreds of others to enjoy access inside some otherwise private international venues.
I learned about the possibility of seeing the French Embassy only the day before by reading a one-inch item in a local English-language daily. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about also being able to tour the British ambassador’s residence, UNESCO offices and a restored colonial-era building where the high-end Van’s restaurant operates. (I had dined expensively at the restaurant once and have felt no need to return.)
Still, visiting the French Embassy proved to be notable for its links to the tumultuous time when the Khmer Rouge took power and for a lush tropical garden/park that sprawls for 4.8 hectares acres behind the historic compound’s walls, sadly the biggest such place in all of Phnom Penh.
When I arrived in late morning, the sidewalk outside was clotted with folks waiting in the sun to join one of the tours, which were conducted variously in French, Khmer or English.
I almost turned around and instead asked an embassy official at the front of the long lines where to stand — it wasn’t evident because the size of the crowd obscured directional signs. She was kind enough to let me bide my time until the next tour in English under a tree inside the gate. (I think she took pity on a man older by decades than the throng composed mostly of students, the majority of whom apparently learned about the event on Facebook; age does have its privileges, thankfully.)
After assembling inside, we were led to the consular section and then to the garden, where two memorials attracted our somber attention.
One was a collection of seven tombstones, the only ones that remained after the Khmer Rouge destroyed what was the nearby French cemetery and where grave robbers subsequently scavenged for jewelry and gold teeth.
According to Steven Boswell in his book, King Norodom’s Head, to which I am indebted for much of the historical detail in this post, a bronze plaque in front of the tombstones is translated from the French as follows:
These tombstones are all that remains of the old French Cemetery in Phnom Penh destroyed during the tragic years which Cambodia experienced. In Memoriam.
To be honest, I was moved less by the tombstones than by the remnant of a gate that poignantly recalls the tumult in 1975.
The relatively flimsy structure was opened that April 17 to admit foreigners and Cambodians, Boswell writes, quoting other sources and reporting that the embassy personnel were soon overwhelmed by the approximately 1,600 persons who obtained sanctuary on the grounds. He goes on:
One of the two French policemen responsible for the embassy’s security, Georges Villevielle, would remember it this way: “Very quickly, given the extensive size of the embassy, the low height of the surrounding wall, and the influx of refugees, we were completely inundated. I even recall seeing some Cambodians trying to lift over the wall, at some distance from the gate, a paralyzed man in his armchair.”
Readers may know that Cambodia had been a French colony for most of the years between 1863 to 1954, so it would have been natural to consider the embassy as a safe place for folks fleeing the Khmer Rouge.
When the gate was ultimately shut, individuals without French or foreign papers were turned away, including Prince Sisowath Monireth, a former prime minister under King Sisowath. He was executed subsequently.
It was not only the prince for whom things did not end well. The Khmer Rouge ordered the gate opened to expel all the Cambodians. Those unfortunate souls moved to the highways leading from the city to, as Boswell put it, “the horror that awaited.”
The gates were opened again days later. Then, it was to allow some 600 foreigners to be trucked from the embassy to the Thai border. “The embassy was now empty, the gate closed,” according to Boswell. In January 1979, when the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge ended, it became a base for the Vietnamese army. Although the army returned civilized order to Cambodia, it was years before Vietnam quit the embassy, leaving it “partly in ruins and stinking of human excrement. . . ”
The embassy was restored between 1993 and 1996 on the original foundations following restoration of diplomatic relations in 1991, and you can see the dining room for formal dinners at left.
The gate and surrounding walls were rebuilt as well, as is evident in the photos above. Let us assume that they will remain needlessly strong, high and forbidding.