by Bobbie Bergesen
A not terribly unusual experience, the one described by the Foreign Service spouse author. U. S. diplomats abroad often run into anti-American demonstrations. Here is the story of one such encounter, one that fortunately had a relatively benign ending.-Ed.
In the mid-sixties, when America was focused on the war in Vietnam, we were living just next door, in Cambodia, where my husband was with the American Embassy in Phnom Penh, the capital. As the war began spilling over the leaky border between the two countries, one of its first visible effects in the Cambodian capital was a “spontaneous” anti-American riot. Although only a ripple, the riot, and others that followed, foreshadowed the widening surges of war that were to engulf the country in the seventies, changing its course forever.
In late 1963, when we first arrived in Phnom Penh, the city was peaceful and pleasant. The streets were clean: modern garbage trucks (imported from communist Czechoslovakia, as I remember) made daily rounds; the curbstones lining the main streets and tree-shaded boulevards were frequently whitewashed. The famed ruins of Angkor Wat lay in a park-like setting half a day’s drive to the northwest, over an excellent asphalt road. The former royal city and great temple complex built by Khmer civilizations from about the ninth to the thirteenth centuries drew us like a magnet. We visited it as often as we could.
Even at the best of times, few American tourists reached Angkor. For us, coming upon it after the pleasant but somewhat monotonous drive over open country, was a surprise. Little hinted at the archaeological treasures to come. The road, used by local people to catnap or dry rice on, or to lounge beside for a chat, ran through flat terrain scattered about with the usual Southeast Asian basha huts. One clue stood out – a stone bridge, a dilapidated span about midway to Siem Reap, the town nearest the ruins. A short sharp arch over a dried-up stream bed, the bridge was flanked by carved railings in the shape of thick-bodied, humped-up Nagas (mythological serpents). The Nagas were carried in the arms of five or six stone demons sitting cross legged, their faces almost worn away. These railings were like the balustrades of the much larger causeway to Angkor Thom, at the center of the Angkor complex. With international assistance, mainly French, many of the ruins had been restored; other deliberately left to the jungle. At Ta Prohm, for example, the clinging, thick white aerial roots of a huge ficus tree half covered the impassive godlike face carved out of the massive stone blocks which formed the entrance to the shrine.
Once, driving up to Angkor, we saw an army of ducks marching in single file along the boundary ridge that separated one rice paddy dike from the next. As they waddled along in their determined, single minded way, quacking loudly, the whole outfit looked such a perfect caricature of a marching army that we laughed out loud. The thought of soldiers invading that peaceful scene never crossed my mind.It was on our last visit, in early 1965, while others explored nearby, that I stumbled over a round gray stone, about four inches thick and ten inches around. Five or six stones lay half hidden in dry brown stubble not far from the famous Bayon temple, about which little is known except that it probably dates from the sixth or seventh century. Perhaps the weathered rounds had toppled from its dark gray towers centuries ago.. Unbroken, they lay spread out in the rough outline of a fallen column. Each bore a two inch wide carved band of intricate, deeply incised designs, traces of which were still visible despite years of pelting monsoon rains and scorching sun.
But early that March morning in Phnom Penh, neither Angkor nor the gray stones were on my mind. It was the hottest month of the year, hardly the time for sightseeing. But it wasn’t the rising temperature that heightened tension in the capital. Although over a year was to pass before the final diplomatic break, official Cambodian-American relations had been heating up. The Cambodian government had sent American military and economic aid missions packing; and “spontaneous,” actually carefully orchestrated, street demonstrations protesting alleged “Anglo-American” policies towards Cambodia were beginning to occur in town.
Although we’d lived there several months, our household goods shipped from home had only recently arrived. Our first official dinner party was to take place that evening, after which we planned to take our guests to a performance by an American ballet company on tour. (This, as it turned out, was the first, last, and only Western cultural event of our stay.)
That morning in March was also remarkable in that our phone actually rang. Electricity was erratic and there were so few phones in the capital, ours was hardly ever used, even when it worked. Quickly putting the centerpiece of tube roses on the dining table, I hurried into the den to answer it.
“Glad you’re home,” my husband said through crackling static. “Just wanted to tell you a protest demonstration’s starting in front of the embassy. Quite a crowd’s down here already, shouting slogans and waving signs.” His voice faded. “You weren’t planning to come downtown, I hope.”
“No, I went down early to buy flowers for the party. Didn’t notice any excitement then around Central Market. I’m about to leave for art class; that’s the only other place I have to go today.”Getting our station wagon out of the garage, I drove to the class in a nearby friend’s garden. Just as class ended, she pointed toward the entrance gate. “Look at those teenagers! I wonder if they’re back from the demonstration downtown?”
Four Cambodians in wilted school uniforms of white shirt and dark blue pants stared in at us wordlessly through the high wrought-iron gate. Hand-lettered placards dangling from sticks across their shoulders read “Down With The Free World!” and “Yankee Dog.” “Perfidious Albion” read another. Finally, the youths trudged off.
Outside the gate, the street was a shimmering white glare. A dusty haze made the familiar buildings look unreal; they wavered slightly, as though seen in a dream—or a nightmare. Far down at the end of the street, in front of the British Embassy, a crowd of midgets milling around two or three miniature cars seemed to spill over into the intersection. Turning into narrower but empty streets, I drove home by a slightly longer way.
Maybe, I thought, I should try to reach the embassy by phone. But just then the doorbell rang and the wife of an international official hurried in. “I’ve come to offer your children asylum,” she announced, “and you, too, if you want.” I was astonished.
“Don’t you know?” she cried. “Anti-Western mobs are all over town. They’ve hauled all the furniture out of the American Library and stacked it in the middle of the street. At the British Council, they’re throwing everything they can lay their hands on out the windows. We could hardly get by. They tried to stop my car, even though my driver kept shouting that I was not American. We barely got through. Now they’re storming your embassy. Who knows where they’ll head next! Oh, I must get home… .”
Before she hurried away, I thanked her, but turned down her offer to send a car for us after the children were home from school.
“Where have you been?” Alf’s voice was barely audible. This time the connection was really poor. “Are you all right? Things started getting rough about half an hour after I called you and I’ve been trying to reach you off and on ever since. We’re in the middle of a real riot this time,” he went on. “They’re throwing bricks, rocks and what look like small boulders up at us. They hauled the flag down and burned it. A couple of cars have been overturned out front. All the windows downstairs have been smashed ”
“Is anybody hurt?”
“No,” he said. “We got everybody upstairs when it started. How is everything around there?”
Except for the British Embassy area, I explained, the neighborhood was quiet. Our house was about a twenty-minute walk from our embassy, but the children’s school was on a side street nearer the center of downtown.
“We sent a van and driver over to the school when things began to get going here,” Alf said. “I haven’t had a chance to check on it since. But when the kids get home, all of you stay there, please. And don’t forget, you have one of the few working phones—in case you or others around there need it.”
Half an hour later, the children burst in, exploding into fragments of news. “The embassy’s being attacked, Mom; we saw some of the crowds!”
“We had to drive all over the place to get home.” Sue interrupted her brother. “It was neat, like a chase in the movies. They kept waving the signs up and down and sort of smiling at us.”
“Let’s have lunch,” I said, finally. With the dining room tightly shuttered against the outside heat, the air was stuffy. Still in tight buds, some of the tube roses on the table were drooping. I threw them away. A bit later, curling up on the rattan sofa in the den, Sue opened her favorite, Black Beauty. Picking up a pair of binoculars, Chris went upstairs to the balcony that ran along the front of the house. Screened by the feathery top of a flame tree, he tried to focus them on the library a few blocks away.
“Let me be the one who calls Dad if they set fire to the building,” he said when I came out. He came downstairs as three embassy officials drove up. One man stayed by the car while the other two came in the house.
“Everything all right?”
“Yes, fine, thanks,” I said. “How are things at the embassy?”
“Well, the first floor is knee-deep in broken glass, and almost everything down there is fairly well smashed up. They didn’t get upstairs. It seems to be over now; but they’re still working the library over.”
Evening finally came. There was a full house at the theater. Making their way slowly through the crowded lobby, one or two Cambodian acquaintances murmured to us, “I’m so sorry… what a dreadful day!”
After the ballet, Alf leaned over to whisper “Before we go home, let’s stop a minute at the embassy.” Wooden saw horses barred traffic a block away from the dark embassy building. Coming out of the shadows, a policeman glanced at the car’s license plate and moved the barriers aside to let our car through. The inky black hulks of overturned cars loomed ahead, looking like enormous beetles lying bleakly on their backs.
Seen head on, the embassy entrance gaped extra wide. The steel-reinforced main door was gone and so were the glass bricks on either side. Cautiously, as though probing a wound, we stepped into the wanly lit lobby. At the far end, an American guard sat at a bare desk. Wire cables dangled from a switchboard slanted at an angle. Warm air stirred through broken windows along the side wall, where unit air conditioners once functioned. A hand basin torn from the wall lay on the tiled floor of the restroom. The toilet bowl was chopped in half.
Alf vanished upstairs.
“Oh, this isn’t bad now.” The guard shrugged. “You should have seen it before we cleaned it all up. All the public rooms got it. You couldn’t walk through the mess.”
Rejoining us, Alf dropped some sharp-edged rocks into my hand. “Here are some of the smaller ones that landed upstairs. Want to keep them as a souvenir—put them in a flowerpot or something?”
Abruptly, the handful of rocks reminded me of the carefully crafted gray stones from the fallen column at Angkor Wat. Even today, maybe the stones are still lying there in dry stubble, thrown down like hard round seeds on barren ground. The sharp rocks from the embassy that Alf handed me are my only tangible souvenirs of the riot. When Cambodian-American diplomatic relations were officially broken in May 1965 and the embassy was forced to close, we left, never to return.
Bobbie Bergesen, who has written frequently for this journal, was a U.S. Foreign Service spouse until the retirement in1984 of her husband, Foreign Service officer Alf E. Bergesen. Four years after his death in 1993, Bobbie Bergesen remarried, but continues to use the surname on this article in her writing activities. She now lives in Florida