When career diplomat Benny Widyono died in his sleep in the United States on March 17, the world lost a beaut bloke, a distinguished diplomat, a United Nations governor of Siem Reap Province and an Ambassador and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps as UN Ambassador to Cambodia.
But the world also lost a great tour guide – I say that because in January 2009, I had the privilege of being given a guided tour by Benny of all the landmark buildings and sites involved during his time in Siem Reap, when one of his main tiresome tasks was dealing with recalcitrant Khmer Rouge generals.
Benny had returned to Siem Reap in January 2009 to give a talk at the Center for Khmer Studies, an organisation of which he was a board member.
I’d just read his book, ‘Dancing in the Shadows’, and was fascinated by his role in a period of Cambodian history – the UNTAC era.
Benny had a great sense of humour, evidenced in the opening paragraph of his book where he describes how , while working at the UN headquarters in New York, he lobbied for a posting in Siem Reap – a posting no one in their right mind wanted at that time because the Khmer Rouge were still there in large numbers – by pleading his case with his boss, Yasushi Akashi, the UN Under- Secretary- General for Disarmament Affairs, at the urinals in the UN office’s toilet at around 4pm, January 22, 1992.
He got his wish.
And the moment I first met Benny in 2009 his humour came to the fore – he quipped that dealing with the Khmer Rouge was like dealing with “mental patients on early release”.
He invited me on a tour of landmarks from those days, and the first stop revealed the full measure of the man.
Most diplomats, governors and top UN officials, when posted to foreign hardship climes, live in splendor, usually opting for heavily-staffed mansions.
When first arriving in town, Benny stayed at the rundown Grand Hotel, now the opulent Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor,
He was then offered a mansion to rent, but he eschewed gubernatorial grandeur, instead opting for renting humble digs in a shared little wooden Khmer house so that he could not be compromised and so he could “stay close to the common people of Siem Reap”.
When we arrived at this Khmer wooden house on the airport side of National Road 6 – one of the few such houses back then that hadn’t been razed to make way for up-market hotels – Benny said, “Welcome to the governor’s residence.”
He had shared this modest house with the landlady, Mrs Long Ang Sim and her three daughters – her husband, Ith Sarin, a former school administrator and former Khmer Rouge member, had migrated to California, so the rent from the governor came in handy for the women the husband had left behind.
Incidentally, Ith Sarin, in 1973 wrote one of the first detailed accounts of life in the Khmer Rouge, in a book titled, ‘Sranaoh Pralung Khmer’ (Regrets for the Khmer Soul.)
In 2009, the house had become an office for a security company, but Benny’s former landlady was living in a small adjoining house. She spotted Benny and I inspecting his former home, and rushed out to greet her former tenant in a joyous and emotional reunion.
Next stop on the tour was a building near the old market where Benny had spent time dealing with two Khmer Rouge generals who were headquartered there.
In 2009 the building had become Martini’s girlie bar but, apart from a few garish nightclub fittings, he said the building was basically the same.
(In 2014, when the building was the Hip Hop Club, four Cambodians and a European died when trapped inside the building after a fire broke out.)
But back to Martinis in 2009 – Benny also pointed out the irony that the Khmer Rouge generals’ former lair was a girlie bar because two sites in town were attacked by the KR on morality grounds alone, in anger because UNTAC soldiers were corrupting local women.
At a site near Raffles, the Khmer Rouge killed two nurses while they were sleeping in their tents because they slept with UNTAC staff.
Another site we visited near Raffles was just bare land, but it was once the notorious Minefield Bar, run by Kiwi Graham Cleghorn who Benny had described as “a burly and ruthless fellow, afraid of nobody, not even the Khmer Rouge, whom he befriended.”
After UNTAC, Cleghorn closed the bar and in 2004 was found guilty of raping five teenagers – his victims, aged 14 to 19, worked for him. He was given a 20-year prison sentence for this and for possessing illegal weapons in Siem Reap.
But now it’s time to end the Widyono tour and share some space with Lois de Menil, Ph.D., founder and honorary chair of the Center for Khmer Studies.
She said Benny was her close ally in building CKS, and had been recommended to the CKS board because of his extensive knowledge of Cambodia.
“Benny knew Cambodia as few of us did, including of course its government,” she said.
“Benny initiated a programme of public lectures, and gave many of them himself. He ran academic seminars for Cornell [University] Study Abroad programmes. Through CKS, he shared his knowledge far and wide. Young people loved Benny, and he loved being with them.
“He was a long-serving member of our Executive Committee. We honour his service. His passing is a great loss to CKS.”