Mr. X, the Cop, and the Heng Samrin: Why being a Journalist is the Most Interesting Job on Earth
It is often the process of getting a story that it is more interesting than the the final news atory itself. Here is an example
By Nate Thayer
Soldier of Fortune magazine
(Note: Nate Thayer was South East Asian correspondent for Soldier of Fortune Magazine from July 1989 to the mid 1990’s. He was listed under the Masthead name George Jones (in homage to perhaps the world greatest make vocalist–country music singer George Jones) He also wrote under the pseudonym Ed Norton covering Burma (in respect for the character playing Jackie Gleason’s sidekick his next door neighbor and sewer worker Ed Norton in the TV comedy sitcom “The Honeymooners”). Often the story of how when gets the story in reporting is as interesting as the straight reporting that makes it to press. SOF focused on this genre of reporting.
Soldier of Fortune Magazine
“Mr. X, the Cop, and the Heng Samrin”
By Ed Norton (Nate Thayer)
It was not unusual, given the type of story that SOF prefers, for a correspondent, during the course of researching his article, to run into some very unusual people, travel under unusual circumstances, or to find himself in an unusual pickle. My trip to the Karen-held areas is a case in point.
One day I had lunch with SOF publisher Bob Brown at a hotel in Bangkok and, as had become routine since he 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 detailed knowledge of the methods of opium production and transport used by the opium armies of the Golden Triangle
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 also had good contacts with Karens, had information of a major Burmese assault at their base of Palu and detailed Burmese 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 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.
Mr. X was a solid fellow, whose information was good, but I have no idea why he was being so generous with his assistance. Being the crack investigative reporter that I am, I doubted 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.”
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 was an affable young man, with a big smile, a crew cut, 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 klick drive towards the mountain borders of Northwest Thailand. 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 $35,000 Mercedes. He must really save his pennies. “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 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 Cambo border that morning, until Mr. X appeared with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Anyways, I could use 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. Brown had returned from a brief trip to the Cambodian non-communist resistance. , and, sleuth that he is, 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 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 info, as I was to find out, was pretty accurate. They were angry at a 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 a million in 3 and 1/2 years. As far as I knew, I was the only westerner with a motorcycle on the border, and certainly the only 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 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 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 KR intel 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 had 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, two nights before, I received a 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 army is angry with you. Return immediately–I will negotiate with them for you.”
Noi is a Thai intelligence contact of mine. I presumed it had something to do with the time Noi had arranged a trip into Heng Samrin-controlled territory a few weeks ago so I could meet them. What Noi had not told me until we were tromping through the jungle was that in fact I was a doctor today, not a journalist, and I was here to diagnose what apparently was a VD epidemic in this Heng Samrin recon unit, and supply appropriate medication which Noi would deliver at a later date. And so I played Doctor in between taking several rolls of film. Perhaps they had caught on when the 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 just as happy to be driving 140 kilometers an hour in the opposite direction towards Burma, with my rock and roll cop and his Mercedes.