An Invitation to the Khmer Rouge Controlled Jungles: A travel Itinerary to the World’s Most Clandestine Guerrilla Army
Excerpts from “Sympathy For the Devil: A Journalists memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
An unpublished manuscript (Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)
By Nate Thayer
One day in July 1996, while in my office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. , where I was a Visiting Scholar after being expelled from Cambodia for writing about corruption and the rise of organized crime in control of the government, I received a telephone call from a friend in Europe with an urgent message. The Khmer Rouge wanted to see me in their guerrilla control zones in Northern Cambodia. Could I come to the jungle immediately?
The message was an urgent request I fly across the world to Bangkok and make my way to a particular small, sleepy hotel in the remote Thai border town of Surin, as soon as possible. When I arrived at the hotel, I was to call a number in Europe and give my hotel room number. I was then to wait and someone would “contact me.” That was the entirety of the message. It was a typical set-up for a meeting with the Khmer Rouge. There was no mention of who I was to meet, when I would be contacted or by whom, where I was going to go, how I was to get into the Cambodian jungles, or what the subject matter would concern. I didn’t even know who within the Khmer Rouge was contacting me.
The routing of the message was typical in its circuitous layers to obscure any prying eyes or ears. And it was designed for the Khmer Rouge to keep complete control over the process that would end in me arriving at one of the most forbidden territories on earth, It denied me any ability to double cross them if I was so inclined, or to pass on information to American or other intelligence officials or other enemies. Importantly, anyone monitoring my communications or movements would also be frustrated if they had nefarious intentions. But it also left me very vulnerable if something were to go wrong.
There was always a palpable undercurrent of dark unease for me when I began the clandestine process of accessing their leaders and the clandestine territories from which they opererated.
A Khmer Rouge “former” diplomat in Paris, who was married to a Frenchwoman and therefore held French citizenship, had called my friend. My friend, a Franco-Khmer, was trusted by the Khmer Rouge, but was not a member of the Party. He, in turn, was known to be close to me. The French based former Khmer Rouge diplomat had been contacted by another “former” Khmer Rouge diplomat living underground in a safe house in Bangkok. In actuality, that safe house was operated by an extremely clandestine unit of Thai military intelligence which, technically, did not exist. That Bangkok based Khmer Rouge diplomat maintained human runners who would be dispatched back and forth overland across the the Thai border, slipping into and out of the Cambodian jungles.
The Khmer Rouge in the jungles had relayed information or invitations to me in Washington, Asia, and Europe and elsewhere this way for years. None of the compartmentalized operatives involved would be told more than they needed to know to get the information to their intermediary contacts, destined, ultimately, to me. My response would travel a similar maze to obscure the entire communication process and content. That information was limited to simply the logistics of accomplishing a rendezvous. Even if they were arrested, monitored or inclined to talk, they didn’t have any information useful to their enemies.
The diplomat in Paris did have one fully equipped man, a specialist trained in China to transmit coded communication, who was able to transmit and receive top secret messages from a counterpart in the jungle in times of crisis or extreme urgency.
But for the purposes of my rendezvous, it could routinely take weeks between a message being dispatched from the jungle and a reply from me arriving back in their jungles.
So, as always, I told my friend in Europe to relay the message that I would depart immediately and would be checked into the Petchkasem hotel in Surin, Thailand within 72 hours. I boarded a plane from Washington’s Dulles airport that night for the 36 hour flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok, it was a ten hour drive to the obscure Thai border town abutting the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles, which were over and down the mountain escarpment to the east.
From the Petchkasem hotel, I dialed the contact number in France and informed my friend simply what hotel room number I was checked into. No names were used. No countries were mentioned. Even the name of the hotel was omitted. “How are you, my friend? I said. “I have arrived fine. I am in number 302. I will wait here.”
“I will let my friends know now, “he said. “They will contact you. Be careful.” He couldn’t tell me, even if he wanted to, when, by whom, where I was going, who i would meet, or what to expect.
Then, I waited…..for days.
I forget how many, but several. mainly I stayed semi-drunk. I did sit ups and ran in place.I left the room for one hour each night to swim at a lap pool in the town. I ate noodles and rice from the lobby nightclub, a neon lit coffee shop which doubled as a whorehouse. From there I had a view of the lobby through which all had to enter or leave. I cleaned my camera equipment and read literature and documents on the Khmer Rouge I always kept for interesting distraction. I had read everything at least once before.
As usual, I had no idea whether I was to have to walk through the jungle for days, whether I would meet important leaders, including Pol Pot, or when the contact liaisons would arrive to retrieve me.
So all that uncertainty and the various potential scenarios required contingency preparation. Jungle clothing, still camera, video-camera, charged and extra batteries, film, notebooks, hammock, mosquito nets, food, rolls of chewing tobacco, whiskey, and zip-lock bags of all sizes to protect against the monsoon rains and other jungle elements.. Everything had to fit perfectly into a small Khmer Rouge knapsack on my back in case I had to walk for days.
And i couldn’t really leave the hotel room, not knowing when the Khmer Rouge operatives would arrive, and not wanting to draw attention to myself in the interim. The small hotel staff knew me well, after years of passing through, and it was no secret what, in general, I was up to. They knew I was going to nearby Cambodia, where there was a war. But they really didn’t want to know any more than that. I would always leave, usually before dawn, and never checking out, utterly failing at being inconspicuous as I passed through the lobby dressed in jungle clothing with a backpack laden with camera equipment. Often, I would return days later, muddy and dirty and accompanied by fit men who didn’t speak much, wearing sunglasses even after dark.
On a number of occasions, I was escorted by Thai military intelligence operatives, whose demeanor didn’t require them to show the ID cards they carried, which struck fear in anyone towards whom they were flashed The hotel staff knew better than to ask any questions.
To get to Surin, the Khmer Rouge had to sneak across the border from their mountain base camps, through numerous Thai military checkpoints and, if everything went smoothly, drive several hours through remote rice farming regions dotted with small villages to get to Surin. Lots of things could go wrong, and often did. Getting a simple message from one Khmer Rouge base to another in order to dispatch a runner to pick me up could itself take several days.
Then one rainy morning while still dark at 0500, there was a firm knock on the door. I asked who it was, first in Thai. Silence.
Then in English. Again, no answer.
Then in Khmer. After a long pause, a hushed whisper replied, in Khmer, “It’s me.”
A non-descript Khmer Rouge soldier, dressed in civilian clothes, waived me out nervously and went ahead of me to check to see whether the hallways were clear He then motioned me urgently out and through the lobby to the parking lot and into a beat up old pickup truck with Thai military license plates.
He refused to tell me where I was going, or who I was scheduled to meet. “You will see, ” he said solemnly. He probably didn’t even know. But he would not have had to be instructed to be vague. His mission was only to retrieve me from the hotel in the neighboring country and deliver me, illegally across international borders, to Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia without drawing attention to anything or from anyone.
Now, In July 1996, more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed there were enemies everywhere. And they were right.
The pickup truck from my hotel was driven by a very frazzled Thai in civilian clothes with a mobile telephone who insisted he was not a serving Thai military officer. I believed him. He was nervous, grim faced, his eyes darting, not wanting to talk, clearly uncomfortable, and drove like a fucking maniac.
Thai spooks were much more relaxed. They had carte blanche and could pull rank with a flash of an ID card, receiving a no questions asked salute and a slight look of fear at checkpoints as the grunt trotted briskly to lift the concrete barrier poles that blocked the road. I had seen it many times. This fellow clearly had no permission to transport a foreigner towards, through, and across the Thai frontier still under military martial law. And certainly not to smuggle me across national borders into zones controlled by an armed Cambodian rebel group at war with the Cambodian government of which Thailand had diplomatic relations. The Thai government was constantly denying claims they had any contact with the Khmer Rouge.
He drove many miles out of the way through a network of back farm roads, bordered by endless rice paddies, 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 in via this route in the future.
After more than a hour, the pickup truck turned down a small dirt path into a a cluster of bamboo huts that constituted a Thai village and pulled over at a noodle and cigarette stall. The tinted one-way windows protected me against the solemn staring eyes of the half a dozen peasant farmers milling about in the early morning hours, the heat already promising to become stifling. This was a village that knew well to look the other way when strangers came through. After chatting with the vendor for minute, the driver hopped back in and we drove deeper, east, into the rice fields down rutted tracks used only by water buffalo and crude farm vehicles.
We pulled over under a lone majestic banyan Tree and halted. And waited. I was told to stay hidden in the truck. I was given a hat, told to put on sunglasses and wrap my traditional checkered Cambodian peasant scarf–a krama–which was around my neck over my shoulders, around my face.
Churning up dust in its wake, snaking through rice fields, a battered pickup truck with no license plates and tinted windows approached from the east, where there was a jungle shrouded mountain ridge, which marked the natural Cambodian border in the not far distance. The truck pulled alongside us and an uniformed Khmer Rouge officer got out, greeting my escorts. With very little small talk and no smiles, I was promptly ordered in the back of the newly arrived vehicle, where there was a bench seat behind the driver. The uniformed Khmer Rouge officer, his face serious, and a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gear shift, its 30 round ammunition clip inserted in the weapon, got in the drivers seat. Young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel room door earlier that morning, got into the passenger seat. We sped toward the treeline to the east.
Quickly, the rice fields devolved into fallow, unproductive land, abandoned. This always is a mark of danger lurking. As we neared the actual ill-defined border, the fields were totally abandoned, the scene of recent fighting. Landmines were everywhere. These were always eerie, peculiar, unsettling scenes. Stark in their silence, abandoned rice fields are a sure sign that civilians have fled, giving up their most precious holding–literally the source of the food on their table and in their stomachs. Things have to be pretty bad for a rural Asian peasant to abandon their rice fields.
Periodically artillery would fall, or clashes would break out, and villagers would be maimed or killed. Soon, they would simply retreat from their land, to wait for the latest, seemingly endless war to ebb. Hand painted, signs on trees of skull and crossbones painted in blood red colours, were everywhere, a crude attempt at warning local peasants of hidden landmines or booby traps. These increased proportionally as we neared our destination, as they do to denote the importance of the area–either a strategic road or military base or encampment of families of Khmer Rouge soldiers or contested area between front-lines of enemies.
We drove for miles down dirt tracks through fallow fields, empty and silent, towards the tree lined mountain escarpment in the horizon coming into clearer focus. Trees always marked the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In this part of the Thai-Cambodian frontier, if their were trees, there were guerrillas with guns hiding in them.
We had one more obstacle in front of us, I was told–a Thai military checkpoint. The Khmer Rouge officer checked that I was sufficiently scrunched up in the back, hat and sunglasses on, tradional Cambodian scarfed covering my face, only my eyes exposed.
“If they ask, tell them you are visiting your family,” he instructed rather preposterously. It was highly unlikely a 6 foot two inch Caucasian had relatives in the nearby jungles controlled by one of the world’s most notorious revolutionary political movements.
The checkpoint consisted of of a single hewn log suspended across the dirt track, weighted on one end by a concrete slab and held down on the other by a rope tied to a stump. A bamboo hut was beside it. next to the structure, in the late morning sun, a single Thai soldier lay asleep in his hammock, his M-16 assault rifle propped on a tree. He didn’t even rise as Tuoch got out of the car to lift the barricade.
And we entered Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. The Thai grunt never suspected an American journalist was just smuggled through past his prone and droopy eyes. I relaxed, even though I could hear the rumbling of artillery, closer and closer, in the direction we rumbled toward, picking up speed……..
(Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)