“Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the World!’ We are with you, the West! Let’s join together!” said the Khmer Rouge leader
After threatening to assassinate American civilians, the Khmer Rouge leader told me “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!”
(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.” No republication or dissemination in whole or in part without express written permission from the author.)
By Nate Thayer
A non-descript Khmer Rouge operative, dressed in civilian clothes was standing in the hallway outside my seedy hotel room in the still dark hours before dawn in The Thai border town of Surin. He waved me out urgently, nervously checking to see that the hallways were clear and I accompanied him at a pace too fast to be inconspicuous through the hotel lobby outside to a beat up pickup truck with a Thai civilian in the driver’s seat 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.
In late July 1996, now more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed that enemies were everywhere. And they were right.
Life for the Khmer Rouge in their jungle redoubts by mid 1996 was a far cry from the previous years, where hundreds of millions of dollars of Chinese military hardware was trucked across the borders from Thailand, coordinated by Thai military intelligence units, and 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. Now 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 that would ring periodically and he would grunt a few responses and hang up. He insisted he was not a serving military officer and I believed him. He was nervous, grim-faced, eyes darting and reluctant to utter a word, driving way to fast, and clearly uncomfortable.
Thai spooks were much more relaxed. They had carte blanche to travel these border regions still under Thai martial law since it was infested by armed guerrillas of the Communist Party of Thailand only a few years prior, and Thai military intelligence could pull rank with the flash of an ID card, getting a no-questions asked salute, and 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 him 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 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 complying.
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 hours, the pickup turned down a dirt path into a small non-descript 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. I was given a baseball hat with a Kiss rock-and-roll band logo of an extended tongue for disguise, sunglasses, and told to wrap a checkered traditional Cambodian scarf around my face.
Churning up dust in its wake, snaking through the rice paddies, a battered pick-up truck with no license plate and tinted windows approached from the east out of the jungle shrouded mountain ridge, which marked the natural Cambodian border a couple kilometers in the distance. It pulled next to us and a 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. The Khmer Rouge soldier was at the helm, his face serious, a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gearshift, young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel door that morning, in the passenger seat. We sped toward the tree line. The rice fields devolved into now unproductive, fallow fields. This was always a mark of danger. As we neared the actual ill-defined border, 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.
Periodically, artillery would fall, or clashes would break out, villagers killed or maimed, and they would retreat from their homes, waiting for the war that each side had nothing to offer them, to end. Hand painted blood-red skull and crossbones signs nailed to trees were everywhere, a crude warning to local peasants of landmines or booby traps. These 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. 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, hat and sunglasses on, traditional Cambodian scarf wrapped around my head, with only my eyes exposed. “Tell them you are visiting your family, if anyone asks,” he 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 on 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. The explosions of incoming artillery followed the rumbling of their firing 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 criss-crossed with antennas. Amputees in pea green Chinese style PLA uniforms, the elderly, and the women and children families of soldiers down the mountain in front line 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, as he emerged from a bamboo hut, wearing rimless spectacles and a grey Mao suit buttoned at the collar around his neck.
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 to greet me, extending his hand with a smarmy, insincere smile. “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 rambuttan 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 to official Washington.
“If you, the United States, continue to help the Vietnamese and Hun Sen fight us, we will use our right to self-defense. 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 Lakes meeting with (Thai) Prime Minister Banharn Silp-archa,” he continued.
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 meant nothing. They were the routine rhetoric of long stated U.S. policy, made on a courtesy stopover in Thailand on his return from Beijing to Washington, which 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 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, entirely inconsequential comment was focused on destroying them, and I had just traversed the planet on my dime so they could use 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 paranoid, fanciful geo-political strategy of the U.S. having entered into an alliance with Vietnam—using Cambodia as a theater—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,” he told me.
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.”
He continued to further piss me off.
“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 mouthing such 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?”he scolded me.
Mak Ben failed miserably at trying to look intimidating.
I remembered Mak Ben well from 1991 in Phnom Penh. He arrived in late November with the Khmer Rouge delegation to Phnom Penh, led by Prime Minister Khieu Samphan and the head of the Khmer Rouge security services, Defence Minister Son Sen, after the signing of the October 1991 Paris Peace Accords on the Khmer Rouge first return to the capital since they fled the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, leaving behind more than 1.8 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, convoying in from the airport with armed United Nations protection, the Khmer Rouge delegation were besieged by a government sanctioned mob that attacked them, invaded their villa, beat them up, looted the contents, and burned it to the ground.
I invaded the house with the mob.
After Mak Ben and the others were trapped, beaten and terrified, he fled for his life through the crowd back to the jungle.
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 rumors that he was a Pol Potist.
“They say you are a murderer, daddy, it said.
After fleeing the Phnom Penh mob back to the jungle, other Khmer Rouge made fun of Mak Ban, saying 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.
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, 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!”
Mak Ben blithely ignored the fact that the U.S. government really could care less what happened in Cambodia, and 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 of justice to face charges for mass murder, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Retreating from his absurd and comically ineffective attempt at hipness, he 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-defense. 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 and to be a courier 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 burst of mortars and artillery. which shook the earth beneath us.
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, softly and quietly. “Especially peace.”
The village elder, like I, 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 that day, July 30, 1996, as we spoke, the jungles just south of here were simmering with a similar attitude, and rebellion within their ranks was about to erupt into violent mutiny and mass defection that would, later that week, deliver the biggest blow to Pol Pot and his loyalists since they were ousted from power by the Vietnamese invasion 17 years earlier.
It was the beginning of the end of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and his movement had begun to implode. Simmering rebellion against the Mak Ben’s and their ilk at the top would soon result in bloodshed and resistance. In the Khmer Rouge, to resist meant either total victory or total destruction. There was no room for debate or discussion or disagreement or compromise. You either won or you were dead.
(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.” No republication or dissemination, in whole or part, without express written permission from the author.)