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Former Indian Amb. to Cambodia H.E. Dinesh K. Patnaik's Insightful Talks Part I

I-Cambodia's Global Dialogue, "Cambodia-India Relations" 2013

Dialogue Partner:
H. E. Dinesh K. Patnaik, Indian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Dr. Sok Siphanna, Convenor of a weekly 30 minutes talk show at SEATV, Cambodia’s Global Dialogue (Every Friday at 9:30 pm and Sunday at 10:30 pm), and Advisor of the Royal Government of Cambodia (with rank of Minister), attached concurrently to the Supreme National Economic Council (SNEC), the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.

Review of the dialogue

First of all, H. E. Dinesh says that he really loves this country, it is wonderful. He comes from Orissa state of India where he finds many things in common with Cambodia in terms of climate, people, fruit, vegetable, food etc. The State is the modern name of the ancient kingdom of Kalinga, which was invaded by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in 261 BCE. Due to these familiarities, he feels young always in Cambodia.

Historical Connection

Historically, the relations between the two countries, Cambodia and India can be traced back to origin of Cambodia itself – the first century A.D. There are many versions of Cambodia legend, one of which found in Cambodian royal annals runs as below:

Adityavamsa, king of Indraprastha (Delhi), being displeased with one of his sons, Preah Thong, drove him out of kingdom. The prince arrived in the country of Kok Thlok (the Khmer name of Kambuja meaning the land of the Thlok tree) where ruled a Cham prince who was soon dispossessed of his throne by the newcomer. One evening, caught unawares of the tide on the seashore, he was obliged to spend the night there. A Nagi of marvellous beauty came to play on the beach. The prince fell in love with and was married to her. The Naga-raja, father of the Nagi, expanded the kingdom of his son-in-law by drinking off the water which covered the country, built for him a capital and change the name of the country into Kambuja (B.R. Chatterji 1964: 3-4).

It is interesting to know that Indraprastha remains the same as it was in original name and located somewhere in New Delhi, where ICCR head office is situated (Indian Council for Cultural Relations is my scholarship provider).

From the above view, H. E. Dinesh recalls King Norodom Sihanouk who admitted once that Cambodia and India were cousin of the same culture. He further adds that "we are brothers from the same home. He acknowledges that there was a "technology transfer" which he says it took place long time ago and the Cambodians used it in a better way. For example, the temples of Angkor Wat were built up by the Khmer Kings, they are wonderful which can not be seen anywhere in India past and present. Angkor Wat is the pinnacle of architecture, the ability to build it showed that the Cambodians were talented and capable. It is amazing!

Besides the technology transfer, there were numerous forms of influence that Cambodia underwent centuries ago. The literature, the language, the scripts etc. were borrowed from India and modified into our own. Dinesh appreciates that the Cambodians could preserve the Khmer scripts as he has seen the many countries in Southeast Asia relinquished theirs and used the romanised scripts instead.

According to one Professor who teaches at Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, he cites, the transformation of the scripts was not one way process. The Indian scripts came to Cambodia and went back. So that's way, we find that many Indian scripts are the same as the Khmer's. However, it is not clear to me how the Khmer scripts could have transformed or influenced the Indian scripts. The Khmer scripts used the modified form of Indian Devanagari scripts. Their sound and order of consonants and vowels are quite similar. Yet, I would rather say it was one way process.

It is surprised when he mentions that there is a tribe in Mahali region (in India) called Kashi. The people of this tribe speak the same language as Khmers. I have never heard that before though I have been in India for more than six years. And I cannot locate where they are in India, I mean which state of India.

Cambodia-India in Sihanouk Era

After the fall of Angkor Empire, the relations as well as the influence of Indian culture became slow down. In addition, from the collapse of Angkor Empire until the French and the British colonization of Cambodia in 1867, and of India in 1750s respectively, both the countries were separated for many centuries. However, it was until Cambodia gained its independence in 1953, and India in 1947 under King Norodom Sihanouk and the first Indian Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru respectively, the relations between the two were re-established when the former visited India in 1955. He was well greeted by Pt. Nehru. As mentioned by H. E. Dinesh, King Sihanouk learnt from India lessons for his freedom struggle without fighting a war with the colonial power. Mahatma Gandhi-ji's non-violence and civil disobedience strategies against the British, were followed by King Sihanouk.

Also, it was Pt. Nehru who introduced Zhou Enlai to King Sihanouk, subsequently they both became very close. King Sihanouk took the lessons of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) from Pt. Nehru at the Bandung Conference (Asia-Africa Conference) in Indonesia in 1955. From there he formulated his own 'neutral' foreign policy, refrained from participating in any blocs – the Capitalist (USA) or the Communist (USSR). For this, he regarded Pt. Nehru as his political guru (master).

To me, Prince Sihanouk's neutrality was perfect for national development and security at time being. Cambodia could then receive economic and military aids from both the US and the Chinese. In addition, his domestic Sangkum Reastr Niyum / People's Populist Community policy had relatively created unity, stability and development in the country for over a decade. He repeatedly rejected calls from the US to join its SEATO alliance system (Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation formed in 1954) which offered umbrella protection of Cambodia. However, in the early 1960s, when the Vietnam War raged, he realised that the impact of the war was imminent and inevitable. He could no longer maintain his neutral foreign policy. He had to choose alliances whichever could prevent his country from being drawn into a wider regional war. His crystal perception was that the triumph of Communism in Southeast Asia was inevitable. Hence he terminated the US aids in 1963 and ended diplomatic relations with the US in 1965. And he entered into the triangle friendship with People's Republic of China and North Vietnam.

In the spring of 1965, Prince Sihanouk came into a formal pact with People's Republic of China and North Vietnam to allow the presence of permanent North Vietnamese bases (called Ho Chi Minh Trail) in eastern Cambodia and to allow military supplies from China to reach Vietnam by Cambodian ports. By then his neutrality was completely eroded.

Prince Sihanouk, Gen. Lon Nol and The Coup

In May 18, 1970, coup d'etat was staged by Lon Nol-Sirik Matak against Prince Sihanouk while he was in France for a leisure. Lon Nol was his General and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak his cousin. Could you imagine how come they staged the coup against Prince Sihanouk? Could you believe it or what was the reason behind the coup? Before turning to India's stance towards the coup, let me first present what I've found out recently. I cannot go without mention it clearly. Many might not have read in detail on this portion and many further put blames on Lon Nol to have set the fire.

With the end of the US aids in 1963 and the impact of which damaged Cambodian economy drastically. The termination of diplomatic relations with the US and Prince Sihanouk's agreement with North Vietnam to allow its armed forces presence in eastern Cambodia made many of Cambodian right-wing political elites discontented. Moreover, after the great communist offensive in 1968, he realised that North Vietnam would win in South Vietnam, but in the meantime, he also saw that the Vietnamese soldiers would not leave from Cambodian soil easily. Thus, he had to find out the way to ensure his country independence. For these reasons, he re-established diplomatic relations with the US in 1969. He stopped the Vietcong bases along the frontiers to avoid infiltration. 

In August 1969, King Sihanouk put General Lon Nol in charge of 'salvage' government. Then, he went to France in the beginning of 1970 for a rest while the country was extremely turmoil. 

What was Prince Sihanouk's strategy to remove the not-less-than 50,000 Vietcongs and North Vietnamese armed forces from Cambodian soil? 

He met secretly with Lon Nol in Europe (Rome) where he told him his plan: "the general should return to Cambodia and organise anti-Vietnam demonstrations, which the prince would use as a pretext to ask Moscow and Peking to persuade their proteges to withdraw from Khmer territory" (Francois Fonchaud 1978).

Returned to Phnom Penh with these instructions in mind, Lon Nol organised demonstration in March 8, 1970 in Sray Rieng. But in March 11, the NLF and North Vietnamese embassies were sacked and burned down by the angry demonstrators. The Prince, who had stayed behind in Paris, was so angry and accused his government of letting matters out of hand. He did not think of such violences and reactions at all, for he realised that "a direct frontal attack on the Vietnamese communists was a serious political error."

The government sent Yem Sambaur and Prince Norodom Kantol to explain Prince Sihanouk, who flew to Moscow since March 13, 1970. The Prince refused to talk with the government envoys and not enough, he threatened to shoot the entire cabinet. Then, at 1. PM, March 18, 1970, National Assembly, which had already been discussing about the Prince sandals during his absence from the country, voted unanimously to remove the Prince Sihanouk from the Head of State. Lon Nol became the president and Sisowath Sirik Matak the prime minister. Let this be the end!

India and Lon Nol's Government

Now let turn to India's stance towards the new government. According to H.E. Dinesh, India did not recognise the Lon Nol's government and removed its embassy and quitted the Phnom Penh. Meanwhile, India also did not recognise the exile government of Prince Sihanouk which was formed on May 5, 1970. What could be the reason for India not to recognise both the governments? It is understandable to me. For Lon Nol's government, it was presumably backed by the Americans. As mentioned by H. E. Dinesh earlier, firstly India did not want the outside force to intervene in this region. Secondly, its experience with colonialism of the West made India unwilling to support Lon Nol's government because of the Americans had stayed behind. On the other hand, Sihanouk's exile government was immediately recognised by the Chinese and had its head office in Beijing. China was then the friend-turned-enemy of India after the 1962 border war between the two neighbouring countries. That was sufficient that India should not recognise Sihanouk's government in exile.

India, Khmer Rouge and Heng Samrin regime

When Khmer Rouge came to power in April 17, 1975, India had no diplomatic relations with the regime, so did almost rest of world. Only China, North Korea, Egypt, Albania, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam (until December 1977), Romania and Yugoslavia had diplomatic missions in Phnom Penh.

With the fall of Khmer Rouge in January 7, 1979, India was the first non-socialist country to recognise the Vietnamese installed government of Heng Samrin. The reason for India's recognition of Heng Samrin regime and derecognise Khmer Rouge was that: First, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was a treaty signed between India and the Soviet Union in August 1971, forced India to recognise Soviet's alliance, Vietnam and its client government in Phnom Penh. ASEAN offered India 'Dialogue Partner' status if India did not recognise Heng Samrin government, but India rejected the offer. On the other hand, India viewed ASEAN as US alliance system. Second, turned to be the same case of Sihanouk's exile government, it was because of Khmer Rouge was alliance of China that India did not recognise it. Third, India did not recognise Khmer Rouge based on its moral judgement on inhuman acts and genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. Four, the legacy of Pt. Nehru's empathetic appreciation towards the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, in his freedom struggle. Last but not least, India also understood the Vietnam's difficult situations justifiable for its invasion of Cambodia, and India's support for Vietnam and its client government in Phnom Penh was to leave space for negotiation in conflict resolution. Above all, it is realpolitik and self-interest.

However, it could not overlook that India (with regional, extra-regional and super-power players) had played a significant role in the settlement of Cambodian conflict which led to the Paris Peace Agreement in October 23, 1991, the Agreement that brought about democracy to Cambodia with its first UNTAC-supervised election in 1993. "For us, we are proud that we stood by Cambodia in its time of need" says H. E. Dinesh.

Cambodia-India in the Post-Cambodian Conflict

Starting from 1986, India under Indira Gandhi administration set forth the restoration project of Angkor Wat temples. As H. E. Dinesh claims India was the first country that visited the Angkor complex that was then full of machine guns, ballot bell and the Khmer Rouge rebels were still there. However, despite long term relations with Hun Sen government (continued from Heng Samrin government in the 80s), India remains a normal friend of Cambodia as compare to China who was before ally of Khmer Rouge against Hun Sen-Heng Samrin People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The problem is that, H. E. Dinesh argues "we are not a mercantilist, we don't go to a country to pay money and have friendship." Probably, he may refer to China who often offers much financial aids to Cambodia to strengthen their relationship. India's relations with other countries, he further says, must be based on common interest and mutual desire.

In Cambodian case, India remains focusing on helping Cambodia in form of 'transfer technology' which H. E. Dinesh mentioned above. According to him, India trains more than hundred people every year and till date over one thousand people have been trained in different fields – agriculture, science and technology, I.T., computer and management etc. India also provides scholarships for Cambodian students every year. I am one of those scholarship recipients (batch of 2013). Other then that, India also has large amount of projects in Cambodia such as irrigations, power transmission lane, roads, schools and hospital for mentally challenged youngsters and capacity building. For capacity building, India has established development centre called India-Cambodia Entrepreneurship Centre based in Phnom Penh, the only centre of its kind exists in Cambodia.

H. E. Dinesh has seen that, hoped that Cambodian government would changed it, every Cambodian wants to become an accountant or banker. "Building up a country, you can only work with your hand, you can build the country by figure", he presses.

The potentiality of Cambodians is that there are 60 per cent of youths below 30 years of age. These young people will shape the country's future. Old people are just like a dinosaur who should transfer their skills and experiences, and provide the guardline to the youngsters. They need to be guided in the right way. H. E. Dinesh has personally seen that "in Cambodia the future is bright. And with these young people in charge, and they have shown up in the election that they are willing to participate in building up of the future of the country. This is a good sign."

The future relations between Cambodia and India

Politically, the two countries have no problem with one another. This is, according to H. E. Dinesh, an ideal base to have a relationship. Economically, India-ASEAN trade is more than 80 billion US dollars, large Indian population, many businesses, there is lots of future of the two countries. H. E. Dinesh argues that Cambodia has to look at itself. To measure the strength of a country depends on proportion of resources to people and per capita resource availability in this country.

Cambodia is a very strong country. It has good land, no water problem (but it needs to be managed well with water irrigation system), mine (iron, titanium, robbie uranium...,) and tourism potential (Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, Sihanouk Ville, breaches...). Cambodia has all these resources and its small population only 14 million, majority of which are young people. This sufficient to develop a country.

The problem is, according to H. E. Dinesh, Cambodia will go wrong if it does not take care of these resources. For this, he gives an example of Africa abundantly replete with resources, but this country is still poor. Because it allows other to exploit its resources. This is a mistake Cambodia should learn. Cambodia should not allow other to take away its resources when it is still young to manage these existing resources.

Another concern for Cambodia is the high price of electricity which impacts the industry sectors to grow. However, many hydropower electricity projects are under construction, maybe four or five on Cambodia can produce enough electricity with cheap price.

Finally, Cambodia-India relations have been good, given that the two countries had no historical animosity with each other. India became a sectoral ASEAN Dialogue Partner in 1992 and a full Dialogue Partner in 1995 as a party of India Look East Policy.

India would have been admitted to be ASEAN Dialogue Partner since the late 1980s, had India not recognise Heng Samrin government conditioned by ASEAN. The relationship was further elevated with the convening of the ASEAN-India Summit in 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Since then the ASEAN-India Summit has been held annually, thanks to the then Cambodian chair of the ASEAN Summit that supported first ASEAN-India Summit. On 20 December 2012, Cambodia again was the chair of ASEAN Summit, 10th ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit was held in New Delhi, India, where the Leaders adopted the ASEAN-India Vision Statement and declared that the ASEAN-India Partnership stands elevated to a Strategic Partnership.

Turning back to the religious connection, India was the source of almost all regions in Southeast Asia – Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Cambodia, in particular, received Hinduism and Buddhism from India thousand years ago. This can be seen through the architecture of Angkor Wat and Bayan Temple dedicated to Hinduism and Buddhism respectively.

It is fascinating to H. E. Pataik. 95 per cent of Cambodian population are Buddhists, and they look back to India as the place of Enlightenment of Buddha. This is a strong religious connection. Further, H. E. Patnaik as the Indian ambassador to Cambodia, has been working with Buddhist community to preserve the leftover of Buddhist manuscripts from the Khmer Rouge, to help them to read Pali and Sanskrit manuscripts and books, and categorise them properly and orderly.

The Message or Advice for the Young Cambodian People

H. E. Dinesh sees the sparkling future of Cambodia to be decided by the awakening younger generation. He says:

Cambodia is a great country. I mean, for me it is one year that I have been here, I have seen how wonderful Cambodia is, full of wonderful people. Cambodia will have a great future. The young people have shown their willing to take the future into the hand. They are the future of the country.

With the above cited potential that Cambodian youths have, he further gives the following message suggesting young people to see what the country needs:

The country needs both stability as well as growth, needs stability and availability of resources, the needs for the young people to take the challenges, to grasp the future and to keep it into the hand, and it is up to you, the young people, to decide what the country is going to be.

In short, as H. E. Dinesh observed closely the youth participation in politics as seen since the 2013 elections period, he sees "Khmer Spring" a potential for the future of Cambodian development. He has faith in these young people. However, they need to be guided to the right way. By the right way, he means that youth should be encouraged and trained to become an entrepreneur; not to concentrate only on becoming an accountant or banker. In other words, he fully supports the "Change".

Dr. Sok Siphanna expresses his feeling that he looks like merely a student while he has a dialogue with ambassador, as far as the historical relations between Cambodia and India are concerned.


Next dialogue with H. E. Dinesh will be on Democracy and Development, it is quite more interesting. Dr. Sok Siphanna is in favour of (economic) development, whereas H. E. Dinesh Patnaik in both democracy and development, but more emphasis on the former. In this dialogue you will learn the words "working within the system to change it". They will also deal with elections, political standoff, demonstrations etc. Here we go!

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