Why being a journalist is one the most interesting jobs on earth
It is often the process of getting a story that is as interesting as the news story itself.
Excerpts from “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge” by Nate Thayer
Soldier of Fortune Magazine is the finest, if often misunderstood, publication of its genre. While a lopsided proportion of its readership, as a control group, were not from the most impressive sectors of the population reassuring to the smooth operation of a peaceful functioning democracy, those who produced and staffed the publication were invariably knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled experts proficient in their area of reporting.
Often the behind the scenes story of how the facts, quotes and interviews are obtained in reporting an article are as interesting and entertaining as the straight news that makes it to press. Soldier of Fortune magazine focused on this genre of first-person reporting.
During my years as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and the Far Eastern Economic Review covering various shenanigans and kerfuffles in Asia, I was also the South East Asian correspondent for Soldier of Fortune Magazine.
From July 1989 through the mid 1990′s, I was listed on their masthead under the alias George Jones (in homage to perhaps the world greatest male vocalist–country music singer), who covered the mess in Cambodia, and under the pseudonym Ed Norton when writing on the forever erupting debacles in Burma (in homage to the character playing Jackie Gleason’s next door neighbor, sidekick, and sewer department worker in the TV comedy sitcom “The Honeymooners”).
Here is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge”
Please consider supporting the publication of the book. For details on pre-ordering copies, how to donate, and other ways to support the publication of “Sympathy for the Devil”, see links on this blog or go to natethayer.com
By Nate Thayer
“It was not unusual, given the type of story that Soldier of Fortune prefers, for a correspondent, during the course of researching his article, to run into some very unusual people, travel under unusual circumstances, and to find himself in unusual pickles. One trip to the Karen-held military areas in Burma was a case in point.
One day I had lunch with SOF publisher, Colonel Bob Brown, at a hotel in Bangkok and, as had become routine since Brown arrived in town, an unusual person joined us. “Mr. X, ” whose employer(s) I never adequately determined, was a Thai military type who appeared to have extraordinary access to the ethnic resistance movements in Burma, as well as unusually detailed knowledge of production methods and transport used by the opium armies of the Golden Triangle who controlled the largest heroin production operation in the world.
Mr. X produced pictures of himself and Khun Sa–perhaps the biggest primary source of heroin in the world–and said he could arrange for me to travel to the Golden Triangle to interview him.
He carried a military-issue, multi-programmable hand radio and repeatedly used the phrase “I cannot disclose that information.” Brown kicked me under the table more than once, his arched eyebrows analyzing this caricature.
He also had good contacts with the ethnic Karen guerrillas armies, had information of an imminent major Burmese assault at their base of Palu and encyclopedic details of troop movements, including the battalion identity, location, and strength, by memory. He said he could arrange my immediate transport to the resistance base.
Mr. X was a solid fellow, whose information was good, but I had no idea why he was being so generous with his assistance. Being a crack investigative reporter, I was suspicious of Mr. X’s contention that it stemmed from a moral obligation to promote the just cause of the opium armies
Mr. X agreed to call me later that afternoon to make arrangements for my immediate transportation to Palu. The call woke me from my nap. “Go to the Pata department store at 0800 sharp and wait out front. A black Volvo will meet you to take you to Mae Sot.” Mr. X identified himself as “your friend from lunch.” I reiterated my interest in interviewing Khun Sa. “Please, we don’t know who is listening. Do not refer to him by name. Call him Commander-in-Chief.” Whatever you say, X baby.
I received another call that night. “There has been a change,” said Mr. X, ” The car will meet you at the same place and time but will not be a black Volvo. It will be a white Mercedes with the following plate number.”
I was tempted to respond “Look, Mr. X, the deal was a Volvo. There was no mention of a Mercedes. I am an important correspondent for a very important international publication. The type of folks who read SOF would not be happy if they knew you were responsible for such a precipitous decline in the quality of my transport.” But being the flexible sort of guy I am I said nothing.
Mr. X took the opportunity to broach another subject. “Uh, Ed, do you have any contacts in the American embassy?” asked the man whose acquaintance I had made only a few hours earlier.
“Well,” I replied cautiously. “I am a journalist. I try to have contacts everywhere. What is it you would exactly like to know?”
“Perhaps you could introduce me to some DEA agents when you return from Burma,” said the fellow whose picture I had seen with his arm around the biggest primary producer of heroin in the world hours before.
“Right, Mr. X. We will talk when I return.”
I was met on schedule by the Mercedes and its owner,Thong. Thong was an affable young man, with a big smile, a crew cut, dark sunglasses, and a brand new Mercedes.
We got in the car. Thong slipped Grand Funk railroad into the cassette deck, and we were off for the 400 kilometer drive towards the mountain borders of Northwest Thailand and Burma. Thong’s military-issue, multi-programmable radio crackled between the seats.
“So, Thong, what exactly is your interest in arranging my illegal transport across the Thai border into rebel-held Burma?” I inquired in significantly more diplomatic terms.
I soon learned the 30-year-old Thong was a policemen, which seemed for some reason to make perfect sense. “I don’t like being a policeman, but I am my mother’s only son and that is what she wanted. You cannot make any money as a policeman in Thailand.”
That is true, with senior officers making less than US 50 dollars a week. I wondered, however, how Thong managed to purchase a brand new $50,000 Mercedes. He must really save his pennies, was not what first came to my mind.
“What would you prefer to do for a living?” I ventured.
“I want to be a rock-and-roll guitar player. I like heavy metal,” he commented over the din of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the water” blasting from the cassette.
Although I had been to resistance-held Burma before, it was not an area where I concentrated my efforts. I preferred the Thai-Cambodian border and reporting on the resistance to the Vietnamese-occupation in Cambodia. I had been scheduled to return to the Cambodian border that morning, until Mr. X appeared with an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Anyways, I could have used a couple more days to analyze my approach to returning there, as it seemed there were a couple groups of folks there upset with me.
Soldier of Fortune publisher, founder, and editor-in-chief, and an all around truly decent and gentle guy, Colonel Robert K. Brown, had just returned from a brief trip to the Cambodian non-communist resistance, and, sleuth that he was, had informed me that he was told that someone had plans to shoot me upon my return to that area.
As I recall, the conversation went something like this.
“Ah, Ed, I don’t want to pry into your personal life, but this is for altruistic reasons.”
“Well, what is it you want to know, Bob?’
“Do you carry an Australian passport?”
“Well”, he said, spitting tobacco into the 4 star Bangkok hotel bone china coffee cup. “My contact said that he talked to someone who said when you came back to the border you were going to be,”--Brown pointed a finger at me simulating a pistol–“X’d.”
The information, as I was to find out, was pretty accurate. There were Cambodian guerrillas who were angry at a shaved-headed westerner who drove a motorcycle and had recently been arrested in the area.
“They” were the Khmer Rouge–i.e. Pol Pot et al, the group who decreased the Cambodian population by over 1.8 million in 3 and 1/2 years in power. As far as I knew, I was the only westerner with a motorcycle on the border, and certainly the only shaved-headed one who had been arrested by these people a few weeks before this relayed threat.
I had gone in east of one of their military bases to take pictures of soldiers, and taken into custody at gunpoint. They were quite upset, took my film, put a guy with an AK behind me and one in front and marched me to their leader, where I was interrogated for a couple hours and accused of being a spy and eventually turned over to Thai military intelligence.
“I think you do secret work,” said the interrogator
“Oh no, you are quite mistaken, my friend. I just work for a magazine called Soldier of Fortune,” I could have told him. As I pictured a humorless young Khmer Rouge intelligence agent–who had lived in the jungle his entire adult life–leafing through his English phrase book for the definition of “Soldier of Fortune,” I decided this would be inadvisable.
Apparently, this incident continued to irk them, and I wasn’t quite satisfied with the efficacy of any of my strategies for defusing the unpleasantness, so a couple of days on the Burmese border was fine with me.
Besides, in addition to being on some sort of enemies list of Pol Pot’s army, two nights previously, I received another message at 0300 from my apartment security guard in Bangkok:
“Noi called from Tapraya,” he said, referring to a small town on the Thai-Cambodian border. “The Heng Samrin (the Vietnamese installed Cambodian government) army is angry with you. Return immediately–I will negotiate with them for you,” was the ominous message.
Noi was a Thai intelligence agent and contact and more than a bit dodgy friend of mine. I presumed the message had something to do with the event of a few weeks earlier when Noi had arranged a trip into Heng Samrin-controlled territory so I could meet the front-line soldiers, interview them and take their photographs.
What Noi, however, had neglected to tell me until we were tromping through the jungle was that, as a ruse to arrange the rendezvous, he had lied to the government army unit and told them, in fact, I was a doctor, not a journalist. Apparently there was an epidemic of a particularly virulent strain of venereal disease, and I was there to diagnose and treat the scourge that had swept the jungle base of the government front line reconnaissance infantry unit.
Noi had even been as thorough as purchasing a supply of appropriate medication, he cheerfully informed me as we trekked through the jungle path on our way to the government military base after having slipped across the front lines of their battle enemies–the Khmer Rouge.
And so I played Doctor that day, as soldiers filed by me and dropped their drawers and I “ummed”and”tsk tsked” and shook my head knowledgeably as I examined their genitalia between taking pictures and interviewing grunts and commanders over lunch in between taking several rolls of film.
Everything went rather smoothly, given the fundamentally odd scenario.
Perhaps the government soldiers had caught wind of the ruse when the story and pictures were published in the second largest news weekly in Asia, and were perturbed.
Regardless, I had two of the three-largest Communist armies in Southeast Asia apparently very angry with me, and I was quite happy to be driving 140 kilometers an hour in the opposite direction towards Burma, with my rock and roll cop and his Mercedes……
Copyright (c) Nate Thayer
(Excerpts from “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia” All rights reserved. No republication without prior written permission from the author.)