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Inside the decrepit Hotel Renakse, Cambodia’s free press was reborn

In the shadow of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace lies an overgrown plot of weeds, nettles and tall grass. 

Peering over the loosely padlocked gate, visible is the traditional Khmer orange-tiled roof, offering the last glimpses of an abandoned structure being consumed by the ever-expanding foliage around it. Today, the sign out front only hints at the building’s name – the white letters overlaid on chipped green paint spelling out Hotel R-nak-e. 

But the neglect to which it has been subjected since its closure in 2009 belies the crumbling colonial-era landmark’s significance in the course of press freedom in post-war Cambodia and Indochina in the early 1990s. On its premises, one of the first major international wire services returned to the country, and two of Cambodia’s now-extinguished beacons of press freedom, the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily, were born.

“The Renakse Hotel was a hub of those of us jump-starting the return of the free press to Indochina back in 1991,” Nate Thayer told the Globe.

At that time, Thayer was the only staff in Cambodia for news agency the Associated Press. Banned from the country for 10 years by the Vietnamese-backed government that had ruled Cambodia since 1979, he had been based in Thailand, reporting on the non-communist resistance movement still active in the Kingdom’s border regions.  

Thayer would first arrive in Phnom Penh the day the Paris Peace Accords were signed on October 23, 1991. The signing of that document ended the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, lifted an international embargo on the Kingdom and set in motion the interim UNTAC government. 

First setting up shop in the upscale Hotel Cambodiana on Phnom Penh’s riverside, Thayer’s editors would soon complain of the sizable bill he was racking up, leading him to relocate to the $5-a-night Renakse down the road. It would be there that he would relay among the first building blocks of free press in the Kingdom. 

“I opened the AP bureau in the Renakse, which was the first reopening of AP after they left all of Indochina in 1975 at the end of the [Vietnam] war. That was December 1991,” Thayer said. 

“There were exactly eight landlines in all of Cambodia. Eight, for the whole country. And I found one of them, which was the Renakse. I got the owner to hook it up directly to my room [so I could file stories].” 

Photo: Alastair McCready

Despite its hollowed-out interior, stripped of all but the most immovable features, the Renakse today retains its mustard-yellow stucco exterior typical of colonial architecture erected in 19th century French Indochina. 

With its rubble-strewn floor, vines suspended from the ceiling and resident bat colonies, whatever grandeur the hotel once held at its inception in the late 1890s is long-consigned to history. Unlike the Raffles Hotel – its much-storied, far grander and still operational counterpart across town – details remain scant on the Renakse’s life and purpose during much of the 20th century.

It was home to the Council of Ministers under colonial rule, before hosting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1950s. There are suggestions it then housed monks in the 1960s, students from the nearby Buddhist Institute of Cambodia. It was also the temporary headquarters for the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation after their overthrow of Pol Pot in 1979, then acting as a state hotel hosting international experts and officials in the early 1980s.

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But by the time Kem Chantha and her husband Pok Yuthea, a Cambodian returnee from Long Beach, California, took over the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) -owned building in the late 1980s on a 49-year lease, it was in a state of major disrepair. 

Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of restoration and years of wrangling over property rights would culminate in a forceful and controversial eviction of Chantha and Yuthea in 2009. On January 6 that year, soldiers entered the building, hauling out mattresses, furniture and removing guests on the grounds that the building was not fit for purpose

The real reason more likely lay in a proposed real estate development on this prime plot of land in the capital. Though harder to explain is why this development remains unrealised, with the shell of the Renakse still standing to this day. 

Photo: Alastair McCready
Photo: Alastair McCready
Photo: Alastair McCready

But these legal wrangles were still a distant future when Michael Hayes landed at what was then Pochentong International Airport back on January 1, 1992.  

Unemployed and left disillusioned by the NGO world from his time working in the field in Bangkok, the 40-year-old Hayes saw opportunity in a soon-to-be liberalised Cambodia under UN control. 

“I knew the embargo would be lifted, and these NGOs would flood in,” he told the Globe. “The UN is coming in, all these thousands of peacekeepers. All these businesses. And this is the only country in the region without an English newspaper, except maybe Laos. So I thought, maybe I should start one.” 

Landing on New Year’s Day, he would be carrying a letter addressed to King Norodom Sihanouk, requesting permission to start what would become known as the Phnom Penh Post. A complete novice in the newspaper industry, he would also seek out one of the country’s highest-profile foreign correspondents looking for guidance. 

It wouldn’t take long to track him down. 

Nate was the drawing card – because he knew all the military, for the royalists and the republicans. He’d been inside what they call the non-communist resistance

“When I got to the airport, I flew in and a guy came up to me, right away someone was hitting on me. I tell him I need to find Nate Thayer, he tells me he’s staying at my hotel. So I went with him,” he said.

“Nate was the drawing card – because he knew all the military, for the royalists and the republicans. He’d been inside what they call the non-communist resistance.” 

In later years, Thayer would go even further than that. In October 1997, he would become only the third Western journalist, after Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman in 1978, to interview deposed Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot, shortly before he died. 

Photo: Alastair McCready

Hayes would join Thayer at the Renakse, pitching up in a basic, small room. He recalls baguette, omelette and coffee being the only sustenance on offer from the restaurant; the smell of frangipani trees in the Renakse’s well-manicured garden, an oasis in the city as he remembers.

But of top priority remained the letter, promptly sent off to the king soon after Hayes arrived. 

“Two weeks later I got a letter back, saying yes you can start a newspaper,” he said. “It was delivered right to the hotel, some guy with white gloves and a traditional Khmer government uniform.” 

Thayer himself remembers being struck by Hayes’ plan upon meeting him at the Renakse. 

“Michael didn’t have any idea what the fuck he was getting into,” he recalls affectionately. The two remain close friends to this day. 

“He had absolutely zero experience in journalism. He had no idea what the fuck he was doing. But he had an excellent idea, and he had a letter from the king which he was flashing around.” 

Within weeks, Hayes, along with his wife and Post co-founder Kathleen O’Keefe, were in the early stages of creating an independent newspaper, something not seen in Cambodia for almost two decades. 

“There were only a few of us in Cambodia then. There was Reuters, there was United Press International, there was Agence France Presse, and that was pretty much it,” Thayer said. 

“But every one of them decided what an excellent idea having an actually independent free press newspaper in Phnom Penh was. And we all gave our work for free.” 

The first edition of the Phnom Penh Post Image: Michael Hayes
The letter from King Norodom Sihanouk, hand delivered to Hayes at the Renakse. Image: Michael Hayes

In the early days of the Post, Cambodia was a logistical and political minefield for the newly-formed independent news outlet. 

Originally a bi-weekly, the first issues of the Post were produced in Thailand and flown over to Phnom Penh, Hayes explained, as all the printers in the country were owned by the CPP, and thus unenthusiastic about the paper’s introduction. 

The first issue was published on July 10, 1992, costing $1. When released, it was the first independent newspaper of any language in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam since pre-1975, when communist governments came to power in all three countries.

While by this time, Hayes had left the Renakse behind and set up shop with the Post in nearby Wat Botum, it would be back on the grounds of the hotel that the next chapter of Cambodia’s press freedom journey would occur. 

In its first year in print, the Post’s main competition would come from the now-defunct Cambodia Times – the short-lived, unashamedly pro-government newspaper founded by current Khmer Times publisher T Mohan. 

But it would be in late 1993 that its first credible rival would emerge, as former Newsweek journalist and philanthropist Bernie Krisher entered the fray. In mid-1993 he had begun touting the idea of the Cambodia Daily among young, inexperienced journalists – among them was Robin McDowell, then a recent Columbia graduate with only minimal experience in the field. 

“I got in touch with Bernie and met with him in New York. He showed me some pictures from Phnom Penh and I was very intrigued so I just got on a plane and went in the middle of August 1993,” McDowell told the Globe

Along with another relatively inexperienced journalist in Barton Biggs, the pair would become the Daily’s founding editors under publisher Krisher. 

“It was just me and Barton. As part of that we were both going to get a room in the Renakse. The office was going to be in this big room on the second floor that overlooked the Royal Palace. He had a couple of computers in there, and he had a fax machine, and we basically just got to work setting it up.” 

The Renakse in 1993. Photo: Robin McDowell

Their first weeks in Phnom Penh were spent preparing content for the newspaper and recruiting local journalists. Reflecting on the shallow pool of journalism talent in post-war Cambodia, McDowell says among the first recruits were a former policeman and a pagoda boy. Sopheng Cheang, then a moto taxi driver, today a respected veteran journalist, was recruited simply because McDowell spotted him with a copy of Shakespeare when hitching a ride. 

“The first couple of weeks were really just around the clock. Maybe we’d get two or three hours of sleep per night. It was just laying it out, getting it to the printers, constant problems with blackouts with the generator,” she said.

“By the time we took the pages to the printer, it was often about two in the morning. We’d be driving through these empty streets of Phnom Penh, passing armed guards down big potholed streets. At that time [the city at night] was completely empty except for soldiers. Then we’d have to go back to the Renakse, and sometimes climb over that fence if they had locked it.”  

There was a lot of resentment, because technically the Daily was an NGO, and Bernie was getting funding and donations, and people were buying ads. So Michael Hayes at that time felt like this was not fair competition

McDowell talks of a small community of journalists in Phnom Penh then, centred around the Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverside. But as the newcomers in town, the Daily found itself the younger brother to the more established Post, and a sibling rivalry between the two newspapers quickly arose. 

“Bernie started as a daily straight away. It was stapled in the corner, and everyone laughed at it, they called it [the Cambodia Daily] Bernie’s bulletin,” Hayes said. “But sure enough, I lost a load of ads, because people wanted a daily.” 

The Daily’s ambiguous status as a non-profit, the same status that would eventually result in its demise in 2017 over a mammoth unpaid tax bill strategically recalled by the government amidst a crackdown on press freedom and political opposition, would be what initially gave it a boost in its early days. 

“There was a lot of resentment, because technically the Daily was an NGO, and Bernie was getting funding and donations, and people were buying ads. So Michael Hayes at that time felt like this was not fair competition,” McDowell said. “There was a period of us feeling like, why are you picking on us, we’re just young journalists wanting to put out this paper.” 

Haye’s recollection of that time closely aligns with McDowell’s. 

“I saw them as competition. The Daily editorial staff didn’t have to pay the bills. They didn’t get it, they thought we should all be buddies.” 

Barton and reporter Chea, a former policeman. Photo: Robin McDowell
Ung Voithdey, a reporter and officer manager for the Daily, in their office overlooking the Royal Palace. Photo: Robin McDowell

But today, the warmth with which all those interviewed reflect on that era illustrates that any tensions from that time are long-consigned to history. 

Hayes proudly references the Pulitzer Prize his former rival McDowell has since won for her reporting with AP; McDowell refers to her almost two years in the Cambodian capital as making her fondest memories, saying she’s still in touch with friends from both the Post and Daily

A solidarity has grown over the years, born out of a mutual recognition of the powerful legacies both publications would go on to carve in the realm of press freedom in Southeast Asia, as well as both of their eventual falls as independent outlets. 

Less than a year after the Daily shuttered, in May 2018 the Post would be bought in a highly controversial deal by a Malaysian businessman with close ties to the Cambodian government – and with it losing any semblance of editorial integrity. 

With both publications now having gone the way of the Renakse, damaged beyond repair, lost is the dream crafted within the hotel’s walls of Cambodia playing host to a truly independent newspaper.

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