Thirty years ago Michael Hayes arrived in Cambodia with his life savings of about US$50,000 and his then-wife Kathleen just as the United Nations began pouring into the Southeast Asian nation to oversee elections and hopefully end decades of war. Luke Hunt writes for the Phnom Penh Post.
Armed with a royal seal from King Norodom Sihanouk Hayes founded the Phnom Penh Post from scratch, and for the next 16 years was responsible for a newspaper that enjoyed a reputation for telling the truth while maintaining a sympathetic ear for this country’s plight and its tragic history.
But this reputation came at a price. Several Khmer contemporaries were assassinated and there were many sleepless nights from the top floor of his home and office in Street 264. Hayes literally slept one floor above the news room that produced every issue, once every two weeks.
By the time I returned to Cambodia as bureau chief for Agence-France-Presse (AFP) in mid-2001, his marriage had collapsed and financial insecurity was a constant. The wars were over and efforts to put the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial were dominating headlines.
In those days tribunal detractors were loud, not unlike now, and too often the people bellowing about the tribunal’s perceived inadequacies would hog the kind of attention that others thought belonged to Pol Pot’s many victims who had become an important part of the paper’s focus.
As such, the PPPost’s reputation was largely borne out of the Khmer Rouge and how these ultra-Maoists wiped out a third of their own population between 1975 and 1979. But covering what had happened all those years earlier could prove tiresome, especially when seen through the prism of the late 1990s when a low-level civil war persisted.
With conflict topping the agenda the economy became the most underplayed story in the country, particularly in light of the never-ending aftermath of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis which dominated news everywhere else in the region. Hayes often complained about the lack of economic coverage, and he understood the fiscal realities of the day first hand.
During the 10th anniversary of the newspaper, he quipped: “Basically I’ve spent the last 10 years not getting paid to worry about money every day, how this paper survived is an absolute mystery to me.”
In his own words Hayes also “daydreamed about finding boxes of cash” and once told me that “if I had a buck for every time I worried about money I’d be a millionaire.”
Things were tight but Hayes was also being modest.
The secret of the PPPost’s survival and its great successes was largely due to Hayes’s ability to attract young and talented journalists who were prepared to live on a shoestring and work their hearts out. As a result the paper became a giant stepping stone to wider careers.
The likes of Ker Munthit, Sarah Colm, Leo Dobbs, Liam Cochrane, Rob Carmichael, Nate Thayer, Matthew Granger, Jason Barber, Hurley Scroggins and Peter Sainsbury along with scores of other seasoned journalists have spent time at the PPPost.
They earned rich praise from heavyweight academics and commentators including David Chandler, William Shawcross, Milton Osborne, Peter Maguire and Craig Etcheson and this would continue through much of the first decade of this century when news coverage changed dramatically.
The US-led War on Terror had its own specific consequences on individual countries around Southeast Asia as al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) made its presence felt with a series of bombings, like the 2002 Bali blast which left more than 200 people dead.
In Cambodia the flak held added dimensions. Amid this post 9/11 atmosphere and its borderline paranoia, Phnom Penh was for the first time about to chair the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and host leaders from around the world.
Conditions in the capital were rough, politicians blissfully ignorant of what was expected and Islamic extremists were using Cambodia as a hideout.
The Bali bombing was masterminded by Hambali who had entered Cambodia after passing himself off as Thai, a decision he would later fear and regret, and he spent much of the year plotting that bombing from a guest house behind the Phnom Penh Mosque on Boeung Kak Lake, which is now little more than a very big sand pit.
Following the blast Hambali held his ground in Cambodia until he panicked in late January 2003, after witnessing the whole sale destruction that erupted amid the anti-Thai riots that effectively shut down the country, spawning the memorable front page headline in the PPPost: Mobs Go Berserk.
Hambali fled and was soon captured in Thailand.
A year later I was on Sabbatical, working regularly for the PPPost and investigating stories about hard-line Wahabi groups from Saudi Arabia allegedly funding Muslim Cham conversions and building opulent mosques in the Cambodian countryside where locals had known little more than traditional stilt houses and maybe a cow shed.
During a series of interviews Cambodian Muslims came forward and told how they had been ordered out of the Madrassas in Southern Thailand where they had studied. Trouble was brewing and from his contacts in Thailand and Phnom Penh, Hayes had also heard of a military crackdown.
The PPPost was all over the story and ahead of the game on the outbreak of a conflict that continues to this day, just as it had been during the years of civil war and when history was being written, such as the coup in 1997, Pol Pot’s death and the arrest of his cohorts.
There were lighter moments, like the time Hayes confiscated a gun he gave to his guard after he was caught firing it at the next door neighbor’s property for target practice. The guard agreed to give it back and added the gun didn’t work anymore.
He put it to his head and pulled the trigger, there was a bullet in the chamber but it had jammed.
As AFP bureau chief from 2001 to 2004 the PPPost and its competitor The Cambodia Daily were highly prized sources of information. The Internet was only just making its presence felt as a news source and Cambodia as a hunting ground for journalists was all about primary reporting.
This meant reporters had to spend time in the field. Good yarns didn’t arrive in press releases, government handouts, and junkets. To be fair this has not totally changed in Cambodia like it has in most parts of the world.
But back then Phnom Penh was just a two paper town and the PPPost’s ability to produce highly informative, in depth articles without fear or favor was as appreciated as they were difficult to produce, and the staff on the paper held the respect of their peers and a community.
ED's note: The story was part of a 68-page supplement celebrating 20 years of the Phnom Penh Post and won the World Association of Newspapers, Gold Prize for Best Feature in 2013. it was updated in 2022.