Sam Sary and the little whips of history


Sam Rainsy, Sam Sary’s son.

In November Sam Rainsy, inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s  election victory in Myanmar, began comparing himself to the Burmese heroine. Like Suu Kyi, he was the son of a freedom-fighter, and like her he would lead his people to victory. Reigning Prime Minister Hun Sen caustically replied that while Suu Kyi was the daughter of a patriot, Sam Rainsy was the son of a traitor. This post is to explain what he meant.

Sam Rainsy’s father Sam Sary was born in 1917. His own father, Sam Rainsy’s grandfather, was a prominent politician of the 1940s, and Sary and Sihanouk became close – the age gap between them was only about five years. In the early 1950s Sary played a significant part in Sihanouk’s negotiations for full independence for Cambodia, at the 1954 Geneva Conference he ensured that Cambodia was not divided, like Vietnam, between communists and non-communists, and he went on to become a crucial figure in the formation of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the Royalist front through which Sihanouk ruled Cambodia from 1955 to 1970. (And might I congratulate whoever it is at Wikipedia who wrote these articles – they’re excellent).


Sihanouk: from the Guardian’s obituary, no date, but probably the 1950s or 60s.

Sihanouk’s political style tended towards fascism, and Sary was charged with making sure that Sangkum and Sihanouk stayed in power:

The evil genius behind the repression [of opponents under Sihanouk’s rule] was Sam Sary – a bestial man. As an investigating magistrate in the 1940s, he had beaten suspects to death with his own hands. Then he went [to] study in France. In 1955, he joined the Sangkum and became Sihanouk’s closest aide … After Sihanouk decided to use strong-arm tactics, Sary handed out money and arms to hire ruffians to come and break our meetings.

(Ken Vannsak, quoted in Philip Short’s “Pol Pot”).

In 1955, the year in which the Sangkum was inaugurated, Cambodia held its first-ever beauty competition. The judges could pick only one winner, but Deputy Prime Minister Sam Sary chose two: “In no time at all, the judges’ first choice, coffee-skinned, sarong-clad Tep Kanary, was installed in Sary’s household. Later he added Iv Eng Seng, who was only an also-ran with judges…” (The report is from TIME magazine, 21 July, 1958).

By 1957 relations between Sam Sary and Sihanouk had cooled: Sihanouk believed in socialism and neutrality, and Sary, “the staunchest friend of the United States in Cambodia” as the State Department called him, believed in capitalism and Uncle Sam. TIME tells what happened:

Last summer (i.e., 1957) powerful political enemies complained that Sary was granting profitable import licenses to the wrong people, i.e., someone other than Sary’s accusers. Tears in eyes, Sary crawled before Sihanouk on hands and knees and asked to be relieved of his job. Tears in eyes, Sihanouk let him go. In remorse, Sary shaved his head and eyebrows, entered a Buddhist monastery.

(Editorial comment: I find it very difficult to believe that this scene was not staged. Anyway, a penitent Sary has confessed his sins before Father Sihanouk and done time in a monastery – things could have been worse).

Out of the monastery by January 1958, Sary was sent off as Cambodian ambassador to London. He arrived with his wife, his children, and his three concubines, including Iv Eng Seng.  Six months later the former beauty-princess went to the police to complain that Sary was beating her. Sary didn’t deny it. He explained to the British press:

I corrected her by hitting her with a Cambodian string whip. I never hit her on the face, always across the back and the thighs – a common sort of punishment in my country.


Sam Sary, Iv Eng Seng, and their son: stock photo from Alamy, 1958

Sary was recalled to Phnom Penh. By now the relationship with Sihanouk had grown icy, while the Americans saw him as a substantial asset.  He launched his own political party, together with a free newspaper. It carried no advertising – where was the money coming from? Suspicion focused on the US embassy. On 13 January 1959 Sihanouk announced the discovery of the “Bangkok Plot”, a CIA-directed right-wing plan to unseat him by means of a coup. Sam Sary fled the country (or possibly was allowed to flee – Sihanouk could be amazingly loyal to old friends), but after a shadowy existence in exile he was murdered in 1963, probably in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

And now for a very strange twist to the tale. On 11 August, 2015, someone living in France posted on the Cambodian expat forum Khmer 440 asking for help in finding the son of her grand-aunt, who had disappeared in Cambodia during the Pol Pot years. So far so common. But this grand-aunt was Iv Eng Seng, making the vanished boy Sam Rainsy’s half-brother:


Iv Eng Seng and her son Senaroth Averill (Iv Eng Seng stayed in England and married John Averill, barrister and eccentric, whose credo was “no smoking, no meat-eating, and no sex”.)

Hello everybody,

I Just discovert this forum. I am french and my english is not good, i hope you will understand.

She is trying to find the lost son that she had with Sam Sary. She goes with him on england and was married with John averill. Then she came back in cambodia without him. In 1974 the son Senaroth Averill goes to visit his mom and go back to england in 1975. My grand aunt is in France now, she is very old and she is still looking for him.

So if somebody know something about that, can you contact me please.

Thank you very much




The Prime Minister and the lightning goddess


The thunder-ogre and the lightning-goddess – see here for the legend

I was once told off by a tuktuk driver for getting my Cambodian myths mixed up. I’d said that Eyso was a good guy. No, I was told, Eyso is a very bad guy! And so he is. He’s the god of thunder, engaged in perpetual battle with Moni Mekhala, the beautiful goddess of lightning. As they chase each other through the monsoon storm-clouds Eyso hurls his axe at Moni Mekhala, who deflects it with her magic crystal ball, causing thunder and lightning. The good guy I had in mind was someone else entirely by a similar name. I was embarrassed, of course, but the tuktuk driver forgave me: I was just a dumb foreigner, how could I be expected to know?

Apsara-Dancer-Fight1-1000x666Moni Mekhala-Ream Eyso features in the Classical Cambodian dance repertoire

Anyway, Prime Minister Hun Sen fed up with the opposition CNRP party saying he stole the 2013 election and that the Cambodian Red Cross discriminates between people on the basis of their political affiliation. Last Monday he faced off to CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and drew a line in the incense-ash:  Join me mano-a-mano down at the Preah Ang Doun Kar shrine on the Riverside, he said. We’ll each take an oath, and may lightning strike down the one who lies.

hun-sen-stooge-reutersPrime Minister Hun Sen of the ruling CPP – is that a smile?

Do any parties dare to swear with the CPP at the [Preah] Ang Dangker shrine?” he asked. “If the CPP stole the election, let all of the CPP die through bullets, lightning and everything. Who­ever was the liar, and made the wrong accusations will get the same—the lightning and everything.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 3.12.52 PMOpposition leader Sam Rainsy – does he dare test trial by lightning?

Lightning is not a natural phenomenon in Cambodia. The gods agree – quite an amazing number of people get struck down each year. Does Hun Sen believe what he’s saying? I have no idea. There’s been some discussion on Khmer 440, where someone wisely observes that what the PM says is less important than who he’s talking to – do they believe it? My tuktuk driver certainly does.

100_0614The main image at Preah Ang Doung Kar – it’s called Vishnu though it’s not if you ask me, but nobody asks me. Oaths gentlemen please.

From a useful blog called Cambodia Monster. Interesting that the blogger calls Preah Ang Doung Kar “him,” though it’s strictly the name of the flagpole under which the shrine stands: “Sacred Royal Flagpole”

Postscript: Looks like it’s on. Sam Rainsy says he accepts the challenge, “though a vote recount would be more useful.” More useful, but less entertaining. Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, says this is a “strange” way to settle disputes. But Mao Pises, president of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, says e’s a Buddhist himself, “and, as you know, the Cambodian people who follow Buddhism believe our ancestors and especially our heroes and spirits have power here, and will kill or destroy those people who destroy our nation.”