Milton’s Indochine

Philip Coggan

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Milton Osborne (right) with Prince Sisowath Phandaravong at the British Embassy in Phnom Penh in July 1961.
Photo: Milton Osborne

Pol Pot Solved the Leprosy Problem: Remembering Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds, 1956-1981
Milton Osborne
Connor Court Publishing: 2018
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In 1956 a youthful Milton Osborne spent a few weeks in Papua New Guinea, courtesy of a scheme meant to inspire young (white, male) Australians to take up a career in colonial administration. It didn’t work with Osborne, who saw instead the “No Dogs, No Natives” signs at the whites-only beach and heard the district officer regretting that he was no longer allowed to take the “coons” behind the shed for a beating. His conclusion: “No matter how it operates and however well intentioned, colonialism is fundamentally about inequality”.

On graduating from university, he joined the Australian Department of External Affairs, and at the end of his training year was posted to Phnom Penh. Then as now Cambodia was not a plum posting (“Paris, London, New York …” — the Peter Stuyvesant cities), and Osborne wondered why he was sent there; the fact that he spoke French could have had a bearing.

The expatriate community in the Phnom Penh of 1959-60 seems to have been drawn from the cast of an early Evelyn Waugh novel, Black Mischief perhaps, or Scoop. My favourite is Bill, a junior member of the British embassy staff who used to entertain diplomatic receptions by pulling up his trouser-leg and inviting everyone to inspect his tropical ulcers, until one evening the ambassador’s wife stretched out her arm like a heroine of Greek tragedy and proclaimed, “Poor man, syphilis you know!”

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