Wars create refugees. In every war there are people who flee from the fighting, and people who flee from the victors.
In the 1970s, the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia were no exception. During the period of conflict, cities like Saigon and Phnom Penh swelled with refugees who fled the fighting in the countryside, and when these conflicts ended, there were people from both of these countries who fled overseas.
This happened on a large scale in the case of Vietnam, but it also occurred in Cambodia as well. François Bizot’s The Gate provides a fascinating account of the experience at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh at the end of the war that has parallels with what happened at the American Embassy in Saigon, as both foreigners and Cambodians sought to flee.
So we know that people flee from countries at war’s end and become refugees. But there are other ways that people become refugees as well. I came across a file in the Australian National Archives from 1975 in which the government was trying to figure out what to do about diplomats from the defeated governments in South Vietnam and Cambodia.
When the wars ended in Vietnam and Cambodia, there were South Vietnamese and Cambodian diplomats stationed around the globe, and some of them clearly did not know what to do.
Mr. Tim Kong Sainveth was the Charge d’Affaires at the Cambodian embassy in Rangoon. In 1975 he was 40 years old, and was in Rangoon with his wife, two children and the children’s nurse.
When he heard that his government had been defeated, he “cabled the new regime in Phnom Penh pledging [the] allegiance of the staff in Rangoon but received no reply.” He then contacted the Australian government to see if he could take up residence there.
These “forgotten diplomats” were complex people. Indeed, all diplomats are complex people. The job of diplomats is to represent a government. It’s not necessarily their job to let people know what they actually think. So what do they actually think? And what are they actually like? Should we sympathize with them?
One South Vietnamese diplomat who was seeking the assistance of the Australian government provided a copy of his curriculum vitae (c.v.). He had diplomatic experience in Brazil, Australia and Germany. He had participated at conferences in London, Geneva, Rio de Janeiro, Nice, Warsaw, Athens, Tokyo, Rome, Brussels, Brasilia, Lima, and Bandung. In addition to Vietnamese, he could read, speak and write French and English fluently. He had a law degree, and had run a bank. . .
People like this had it all, in some ways, and yet they still had nowhere to go, as the governments of numerous countries declared that they were unwilling to accept these people.
I know that books have been written about individual diplomats, but I think it would be interesting to research and write about this phenomenon of the “forgotten diplomats” as a whole. We often think simplistically of wars as having “winners” and “losers,” but the diplomats of fallen governments strike me as something else. Like most human beings, diplomats are complex people, and that complexity is worth investigating and understanding.
[For this file, see NAA: A1838, 1634/75/16 PART 1, Indo-Chinese refugees – Policies and programs – Staff at RVN [Republic of Vietnam] embassies, 1975.]