‘We are the World! Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson?’: Excerpts from ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

‘We are the World!’ 

After threatening to assassinate American civilians, the Khmer Rouge leader continued: “Why don’t we join hands in national reconciliation. Join together! We are with you, the West!” he said, growing increasingly animated, half breaking into song. “‘We are the World!’ Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the world!’ Let’s join together!”

(Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia”. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. No republication in whole or part without express written permission from the author)

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By Nate Thayer

A nondescript Khmer Rouge operative, dressed in civilian clothes was standing in the hallway outside my seedy hotel room in the darkest hours before dawn in The Thai border town of Surin.

He waved me out urgently, nervously checking to see that the hallways were clear. I accompanied him at a pace too fast to be inconspicuous through the hotel lobby outside to a beat up pickup truck. In the driver’s seat was a Thai with a crew cut who refused to identify himself. The truck had Thai civilian license plates.

Tuoch, the Khmer Rouge agent, refused to tell me where we were going or with whom I was scheduled to meet.

“You will see,” he said solemnly. He probably didn’t even know himself.

He would not have had to be instructed to be vague. His mission was only to retrieve me from the hotel and deliver me safely to Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia without drawing the attention of anybody.

It was late July 1996 and, now more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed that enemies were everywhere. And they were right.

Life for the Khmer Rouge by mid 1996 was a far cry from the previous years, when hundreds of millions of dollars of Chinese military hardware was trucked across these borders, coordinated by Thai military intelligence units with the political backing of the United States and more than 120 member countries of the United Nations. Khmer Rouge leaders had compounds in the relative luxury of Thai provincial capitals and traveled in chauffeured cars to Bangkok. By 1996, they rarely got permission from the Thais to leave their isolated jungle hideouts.

The pickup truck was driven by a very nervous Thai civilian with a mobile phone. The phone would ring periodically and he would grunt a few responses and hang up. He insisted he was not a serving Thai military officer and I believed him. He was nervous and grim-faced, his eyes darting. He was reluctant to utter a word, was driving way to fast, and clearly uncomfortable.

Thai spooks were much more relaxed.

The Thai military and their covert special forces intelligence units had carte blanche to travel these border regions that were still under Thai martial law since they were infested by armed guerrillas of the Communist Party of Thailand in the 1970’s, only a few years prior.

Thai military intelligence could pull rank with the flash of an ID card, getting a no-questions asked salute, and a look of fear at any military checkpoint. I had seen it many times.

This fellow I was with had no permission to transport a foreigner through the Thai frontier, and certainly not to smuggle me across national  borders into a zone controlled by an armed Cambodian rebel faction at war with the central government in Phnom Penh of which Thailand now had formal diplomatic relations.

The Thai government was constantly proclaiming they had no contact with the Khmer Rouge, and now, except for the legitimate national security functions of gathering intelligence, monitoring Khmer Rouge activities, and keeping their options open, they were largely telling the truth.

He drove many miles out-of-the-way through a network of back roads, bordered by endless rice paddies, specifically to avoid Thai military checkpoints.

I wrote down every turn, drawing a map in my notebook, in case I needed to find my way back—or was ever inclined to sneak back this way again.

After a couple of hours, the pickup turned down a dirt path into a small nondescript Thai village and pulled over at a thatched roof noodle and cigarette stall. The tinted one-way windows of the pickup shielded me from the solemn but prying eyes of the half-dozen peasant farmers milling about. This was a village that knew well to look the other way when strangers came through. After chatting with the vendor for a minute, the driver hopped back in and we drove deeper into rice fields down rutted dirt tracks used only by water buffalo and farm equipment.

We pulled over under a lone majestic banyan tree amongst the rice paddies and waited. I was told to stay hidden in the truck. For disguise, I was given a baseball hat, which sported the ‘Kiss’ rock-and-roll band logo of an extended tongue, and sunglasses, and told to wrap a ‘Krama’–a checkered traditional Cambodian scarf–around my face.

Snaking through the rice paddies, a battered pick-up truck with no license plate and tinted windows, churning up dust in its wake, emerged out of the jungle shrouded mountain ridge from the east,  which marked the natural Cambodian border a couple of kilometers in the distance.

It pulled up next to us and an uniformed Khmer Rouge soldier got out, greeting my companions. With little small talk, I was promptly ordered in the cramped, small rear bench seat behind the driver, my 6-2 inch frame stuffed awkwardly like a sardine, my knees bent up to my chin.

Within seconds, we were heading back in the direction of the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles of Cambodia, leaving our Thai driver by the Banyan tree.

The Khmer Rouge soldier was at the helm, his face serious, a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gear shift. Young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel door that morning, was in the passenger seat. We sped toward the tree line.

As we neared the actual ill-defined border, the rice fields soon devolved into unproductive, fallow fields. This was always a mark of danger.  The rice fields were abandoned because of recent fighting. Landmines were everywhere. These were always eerie, peculiar scenes. Stark in their silence.

Abandoned rice fields are the sign that civilians have fled, giving up their most precious holdings—literally the source of the food on their table.

Things have to be pretty bad for rice fields to be abandoned in rural Cambodia.

Periodically, artillery would fall, or clashes would break out and villagers would be killed or maimed, and they rest would retreat from their land and homes, waiting for the war to end.  A war of which each side had no fruit to offer them.

As we sped toward the jungle, hand painted blood-red skull and crossbones signs nailed to trees were now everywhere, a crude warning to local peasants of landmines or booby traps. These always increased proportionately to the importance of the area—either as a strategic road or military base or village of families of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

We drove for miles down dirt tracks through these abandoned, neglected fields, empty and silent, toward the tree line mountain escarpment on the horizon. There was no sign of life. Trees always marked the border between Thailand and Cambodia.

In these parts of the Thai-Cambodia frontier if there were trees, there were guerrilla soldiers hiding in them.

We had one more obstacle ahead, I was told—an isolated Thai military checkpoint.

The Khmer Rouge driver checked that I was sufficiently scrunched up in the back, with hat and sunglasses on and a traditional Cambodian scarf wrapped around my head, leaving only my eyes exposed.

“Tell them you are visiting your family, if anyone asks,” The Khmer Rouge soldier instructed, rather preposterously.

The checkpoint consisted of a single raw cut log suspended parallel across and above the road, weighted on one end by concrete and tied by rope to a post on the opposite side of the dirt track. A bamboo hut was beside it. Next to it, in the mid morning sun, a single Thai soldier lay asleep in his hammock, his M-16 assault rifle propped against a tree.

He didn’t even rise as Tuoch got out of the car to lift the barricade.

We had now entered Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. The Thai never suspected an American was being smuggled through. We were greeted by the explosions of incoming government artillery which followed the rumbling of their being fired from further down the mountain escarpment ahead.

The guerrilla stronghold on a high ridge of northern Cambodia’s Dongruk Mountain offered stunning vistas of tropical jungles and besieged villages encircled by bunkers and land mines. Grim faced Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them missing limbs and walking on crude hand carved wooden crutches eyed me suspiciously, trying not to be obvious in the curiosity at the first westerner they had ever seen at their village.

One hut housed sophisticated radio equipment, its roof crisscrossed with antennas. Amputees in pea green Chinese style PLA uniforms, the elderly, and the women and children families of soldiers down the mountain in frontline trenches battling government soldiers walked the dusty single road through the guerrilla base or squatted smoking cigarettes and boiling rice over open fires around the village.

The rhythmic thud of incoming government artillery elicited no reaction from Khmer Rouge “Minister of Finance and Economy” Mak Ben, who emerged from a bamboo hut, wearing rimless spectacles and a grey Mao suit buttoned at the collar around his neck, to greet us.

A blackboard on a thatched wall behind him shouted Khmer Rouge slogans in the Sanskrit based Cambodian script, proclaiming “Hate the Communist Vietnamese Aggressor!” and “Believe Deeply in Guerrilla Warfare!”

He walked over, extending his hand and a smarmy, insincere smile, and said: “Welcome to the liberated zones!”

I, of course, had been given no idea with whom I was going to meet, whether we would continue deeper into the jungle, or whether I would be offered useful new information.

I patiently exchanged pleasantries while fresh mangoes, papaya, and rambutan fruit was served.

Mak Ben wasted no time launching into the lecture he was instructed to give me, denouncing the “Vietnamese puppets and their despicable alliance” who were darkly plotting to “swallow” Cambodia and eliminate the Khmer Rouge.

He saved special vitriol for the Americans.

Much of the not very thinly veiled threats were directed at ears many thousands of miles away at official Washington.

“If you, the United States, continue to help the Vietnamese and Hun Sen fight us, we will use our right to self-defence. I must tell you that if you continue to aid the Vietnamese and their puppets, we cannot guarantee the safety of Americans in Cambodia,” he smirked at me, betraying no friendliness. “One thing I should stress is we will never agree to surrender. Never!”

“We are very concerned, very interested in (U.S. national Security Advisor) Anthony Lake’s meeting with (then Thai) Prime Minister Banharn Silp-archa.”

A French trained engineer and former Khmer Rouge diplomat, Mak Ben held the meaningless title of Minister of Economic and Finance in the Khmer Rouge so-called Provisional Government.

“We want to know exactly what Lake means when he says the U.S. wants ‘democracy, stability, and security’ in Cambodia? Is it security through national reconciliation, without the Khmer Rouge?”

I was beginning to seethe at the realization of what was happening.

I had been summoned from across the planet, on my own dime, to be lectured by a robotic mid-level Khmer Rouge minion because they, in their isolation-fueled paranoia, were reading dark plots into a routine stopover in Bangkok by a U.S. official.

And they wanted me to deliver their pathetic message to my “bosses” in Washington.

Anthony Lake’s comments, many weeks before, meant nothing. They were the routine rhetoric of long stated official U.S. policy. The comments were made on a courtesy stopover in Thailand on his return trip from Beijing to Washington. His visit to Thailand was so short he never left the Bangkok airport.

But Mak Ben hammered on, visions of dark plots having been conjured up in these isolated jungles, attaching ridiculous significance to Lake’s visit.

That was why I had just flown across the world, drove to a remote Thai border town, holed up for days in a 1 star hotel hovel, and was smuggled across international frontiers illegally: To meet this bonehead spout delusional rhetoric of a wholly out of touch with reality guerrilla band of murderous thugs caught in a time warp of their own making.

They were convinced that Lake’s routine, passing comment was focused on destroying them, and they wanted me to relay to Washington that they would start assassinating American citizens working as humanitarian aid workers in Cambodia if the U.S. didn’t back off.

Mak Ben went on to describe a fanciful geo-political strategy of the U.S. having entered into an alliance with Vietnam—using Cambodia as a theatre—that aimed to undermine Chinese influence in the region.

“After the Cold War, Vietnam is too weak to carry out its expansionist strategy. But Vietnam will never abandon its strategy—which is deeply rooted among the old and young. Now, 4 to 5 million Vietnamese nationals are in Cambodia. Laos is finished. Seventeen northeastern provinces in Thailand will encompass the Vietnamese Indochina Federation. The Vietnamese are breeding like rats. Vietnam is at our door. We cannot afford to be alone. We are with you! Who else if not the U.S., the West?”

He went on to contend that the Khmer Rouge enjoyed wide support in Asian capitals. “Diplomatically, ASEAN, China and Thailand are compelled to recognize the Phnom Penh regime. But morally we enjoy the support of the region.”

Mak Ben went on to downplay the influence of Pol Pot and the rest of the senior leadership, who had long officially retired but in fact remained in complete control.

“Cambodia of the past belongs in the past. Let’s not talk about history. Pol Pot and all the Democratic Kampuchea leaders are very old. You can imagine how they are. They have lived 30 years in the forest without medical care.”

Mak Ben continued to further piss me off, and I was seething:

“I would like to tell you that Pol Pot and the other old political leaders are not in the political game anymore. They are finished….I am here to speak on behalf of my colleagues. I tell you that we, our new group, abide and continue to abide by liberal democracy, to be with the western world—the U.S.! I dare to tell you we are with the U.S., the free world! You can believe it or not. I have to stress to tell you that this is our political position and we will never change. For the sake of our country, we cannot go communist, to survive as a nation.”

I had known Mak Ben for many years and always been particularly unimpressed with him.

He oozed insincerity. And he had the self-conscious, arrogant swagger of a nervous, gangly teenager who you wanted to feel sorry for except he was an impotent bully mouthing dangerous dribble. His eyes darted avoiding mine from behind his dark glasses.

“You have abandoned your children!” he said wagging his finger at me, referring to the American government. “Look at Funcinpec, isn’t it your child? And Sam Rainsy, he is a child of the West. They are all your children! You have given birth to them! You have given them food! Milk! You have sent them to school! Are you going to abandon your dying children?”

Mak Ben failed miserably trying to look intimidating but he succeeded in making me very angry.

I remembered Mak Ben well from 1991 in Phnom Penh.

He arrived with the delegation of Khmer Rouge Prime Minister Khieu Samphan and Defence Minister Son Sen in late November after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords when the Khmer Rouge first returned to the capital after they fled the Vietnamese invasion in January, 1979, leaving behind more than a million corpses under the feet of the broken souls of those who survived.

They were not warmly welcomed back.

Immediately upon arrival to their newly rented headquarters in downtown Phnom Penh, after convoying in from the airport with armed United Nations protection, the Khmer Rouge delegation were besieged by a government sanctioned mob that attacked them. The very angry mob, given the green light by secret government military intelligence units with walkie-talkies in the crowd, invaded the Khmer Rouge villa, beat them up, looted the contents, and burned it to the ground.

I invaded the house with the mob.

But while the mob was attacking Mak Ben and the other leaders, beating them bloody, I noticed nearby their unopened luggage and immediately began to loot it, rifling through looking for documents.

A very happy fellow next to me opened a suitcase with $200,000 American dollars in it.

Among many gems, I found Mak Ben’s Yugoslavian passport. And a letter from his daughter. She was a young girl, a refugee herself from the Khmer Rouge killing fields, who found her way from the UN refugee camps in Thailand to Australia as a very young child. She hadn’t seen her daddy in years. It was a heart wrenching letter that begged her father to address rumours that he was a Pol Potist. “They say you are a murderer, daddy. Is it true?, it said.

After Mak Ben and the others were trapped, beaten and terrified, he fled for his life through the crowd back to the jungle.

After fleeing the Phnom Penh mob back to the jungle, other Khmer Rouge leaders made fun of Mak Ban. They said he was terrified of returning to Phnom Penh and being killed. He wanted to stay in the jungle, afraid to face the Cambodian people.

Every time I saw him, I saw a bully and a coward. He was both that day on the mountain in 1996 with me.

After lecturing me on the U.S. abandoning their “children”, and threatening to murder American citizens unless Washington knuckled under to these nearly irrelevant delusional, self-important thugs sleeping in the forest, he smiled at me and tried to lighten things up.

“America is a liberal democracy. We are nationalists. Democrats, too! So why don’t we join hands in national reconciliation? Join together! We are with you! The West!” he said growing increasingly animated and half breaking into song. “We are the World!”, he sang. “Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the world!’ Let’s join together!”

Mak Ben blithely ignored the fact that, by 1996, the U.S. government really could not care less what happened in Cambodia. It’s only stated policy towards the Khmer Rouge, in 1996, was funding projects to gather evidence to bring him and his comrades to an international court to face charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, and mass murder, among others.

Retreating from his absurd and comically ineffective attempt at hipness, Mak Ben again tried to look menacing.

“It is up to you. Our cards are on the table. We can fight for 100 years. We can eat grass if we have to. We have no other choice. We cannot accept that our nation, the great 2000-year-old nation of Angkor, disappears. As patriots, we will use our right to self-defence. It is better to die in the jungle.”

I was very angry by this time. It was clear to me that I had been summoned around the world to be lectured to by, and be a courier for, the Khmer Rouge to deliver half empty threats to Washington.

I was not to see anyone important and I was not to learn much useful. I asked, of course, to meet Pol Pot and others and to stay in the jungle and travel to guerrilla bases.

“The leaders are all busy,” he said dismissively. He told me that I would have to leave that afternoon, before dark. “It is not safe here.”

Down the mountain I could see smoke rising after the ground shook from each incoming burst of mortars and artillery.

At lunch, a village elder looked morose.

“We moved here last year to get away from government attacks,” he said. “For the people here it is a very hard.’

He eyed Mak Ben to make sure he wasn’t saying something wrong.

“We used to have hope that the Paris Agreements would bring peace. We want national reconciliation. In our hearts we want national reconciliation and peace,” he said quietly and with muted sadness. “Especially peace.”

The village elder, like me, was fed up.

I left shortly afterwards, telling Mak Ben, in a moment of uncontrolled fury and indifference, to pass the message not to invite me back unless they were prepared to let me meet senior leaders.

He was insulted.

I didn’t care.

While he betrayed nothing of the matter as we spoke that July 30, 1996, the jungles just south of there were simmering with a similar attitude, and rebellion within Khmer Rouge ranks was about to erupt into a violent mutiny that, later that week, would deliver the biggest blow to Pol Pot and his loyalists since they were ousted from power by the Vietnamese invasion 17 years earlier.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia” No republication in whole or part without express written permission from the author.)



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