Thursday 5 July 2012

Post founder looks back (The Phnom Penh Post)

Michael Hayes on his last day at The Phnom Penh Post. Photograph: Ross Dunkley

Fascinating insight from the newspaper's founder, Michael Hayes, sheds light on the origins of The Post's daily era.
Q: Michael, when did you first come to Cambodia?

A: In November, 1974, I came to Cambodia as a backpacker and stayed for six weeks. It was very chaotic, and the war was going badly for the government. You couldn’t drive to town; you had to fly in. Phnom Penh was cut off by road, but the river was still open. I flew in from Battambang for US$5. There must have been 20 airlines at the time.

I came to Phnom Penh and later flew out to Siem Reap. I had been backpacking throughout Asia and had been all through South Asia and I came overland from Italy, through Afghanistan – the strangest place on the planet – and all sorts of interesting places along the way.

Q: What was your first impression of Cambodia?

A: Well, I’d never been in a country at war, so it was a real eye-opener for me every day. There were about two million people in Phnom Penh, mostly refugees. A lot of  buildings were sandbagged and there was barbed wire everywhere. It was very chaotic and the Khmer Rouge were across the river, firing rockets in here once a week or so.

There weren’t any KR on the peninsula, but on the other side of the Mekong. You could stand on rooftops and watch the Cambodian air force attack the Khmer Rouge. You’d see these fights at night and you could see – I forget which colours were which – but you could see blue tracers going down and red tracers going up. Lon Nol’s air force consisted of T28s – trainer planes.

It was both scary and exciting. There was a curfew at night, and I didn’t really feel in that much danger. But, ah, I didn’t tell my parents I came here.

Q: Did you see the action up close?

A:  I met this American guy and we went out to the front lines – probably a very foolish thing to do – but you could go right out to where the troops were and say, ”How’s the war going?”, and they would quickly say, ”What are you doing here?” Then they would urge you to get back to Phnom Penh.

You could drive to Udong, and a big base north of there at Lovek, and you could drive to Nhek Leung and the Route 1 ferry crossing, where you could go across the river, and the Lon Nol government controlled a couple of miles out from there.

Nhek Leung, of course, had been destroyed by US bombing by mistake. It was mostly rubble with a few people trying to scrape by.

You could see the aftermath of the US bombing when you flew in to Phnom Penh. When we flew from Battambang to here you could see craters.

Q: After Phnom Penh, where did you go?

A: Then I flew to Vietnam – I flew from Thailand to Vietnam – and a lot of  the delta looked like a bad case of small pox from the air. I stayed just a week. There was a sense of doom, because I was there in February, 1975, and I could just feel an enormous sense of national fatigue. The Vietnamese had been fighting off and on since the 1930s, so it was pretty depressing. And not long after that, the whole place collapsed.

Q: What did you do after you left Vietnam?

A: I spent a year in Japan, then went back to US and finished a bachelor’s degree in international conflict management. That, in hindsight, seemed appropriate.

I ended up working at the Peace Corps in the Near East and Asia office in Washington for a year. Then I moved to an organisation called the National Peace Academy Campaign, whose purpose was to create a new government institution called the US Institute of Peace, which was eventually established.

We were a lobbying institution to encourage the US government to create the institute. It was supposed to be inaugurated last year, and I went to Washington, DC, and I emailed the institute’s president because Obama was going to speak there, but they ended up canceling the inauguration for various reasons.

But I did go to the institute last September, and I got a tour as I’d never seen it. It was a beautiful new building on the Mall, near the Lincoln Memorial, and they had all kinds of programs and researchers. They fund research on conflict and post-conflict issues, and they do some training.

It was ironic because the president is Richard Solomon. He was in involved in the Paris Peace Accords, so he knew a fair bit about Cambodia.

Q: At what point did you decide to come back to Cambodia and start a newspaper?

A:  I went to grad school in Washington, DC, at Georgetown, then I  worked for a year in Houston,  for a guy who was the chair of the Asia Society, which was in New York. He had an oil company, then the price of oil dropped and he said: ‘I gotta let you go.’

I ended up working for the Asia Foundation in San Francisco as a fund-raiser, and I worked there for seven years. For the last two years, I was based in the office in Bangkok. They weren’t a refugee relief organisation, but they were  providing funds to train Cambodian refugees in the refugee camps. So, at that point, I was back involved with the Cambodian story.

Q: What sort of work did you do there?

A: The purpose of the program was to train Cambodians with various skills, so that when they came back to Cambodia, they could help the county get back on its feet. That was in ’89 to ’91.

In ’91, my contract ended, so I didn’t have a job in Bangkok. I knew the Paris Peace Accords were in the works, so I flew here and came over in early October ‘91. Before the Peace Accords were signed, I was thinking I’d look for work. And I just wanted to come and have a look. So I flew in here with all these resumes, looking for work with NGOs.

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