As Britain handed its cherished Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and Cambodia endured a coup that would bring decades of civil war to an end, American journalist Dan Boylan filed the following.
PHNOM PENH – “Strange … peace kills business,” one reporter said on a recent night at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia. Sitting alone, he stared into his Angkor beer while the sun sank against the Tonle Sap River outside.
Just last summer, as AK-47’s rattled nearby, the club was packed. Reporters from around the world had descended upon Phnom Penh to cover Cambodia’s latest war, a short-lived affair that smashed a short-lived coalition government. With the action came the out-of-town professionals.
“Yeah, it was wall to wall then,” said club manager Tony Anderson. “But if you watched or read anything they were reporting, you’d have thought there was fighting on every corner. That simply wasn’t the case. If you really wanted to know what the hell was going on, you needed to talk with the reporters based here.”
The reporters based here, the ones Anderson admires, are a new breed of foreign correspondent – the freelancer. Phnom Penh’s full of them; part-time writers, photographers and hangers on, all working against the odds. They defy media budget cuts and a reduced demand for international news by sticking around to cover everyday Cambodia.
They are a mix of saints and sinners; some write truth and tragedy, others get blown-up playing war alongside guerrilla troops and some simply enjoy the cheap pot and sex – for US$20 you can get sky high with a hooker until sunrise. But the real attraction is the opportunity: Cambodia is cheap, full of stories, and too dangerous for most. “All you need to get here is a backpack and some dreams,” said one reporter.
One dream universally pursued here finally ended two weeks ago with the death of Pol Pot. A madman of staggering proportion, Pol Pot ran the Khmer Rouge and ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, leaving an estimated 2 million people dead in his wake. He spent the next two decades hiding in the country’s impenetrable northern jungles.
The man was the ultimate savage riddle – who really was he, where was he, and why had he killed so many fellow countrymen, babies…pregnant mothers? Freelancers seeking to solve the puzzle and remind the world of the tragedy he left behind, started trickling into Cambodia during the late 1980s when the country began to stabilize (it still receives the US State Department’s highest grade travel advisory).
Kicking around Phnom Penh and Bangkok, a base for many reporters covering Cambodia, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a number have Massachusetts links; the State House, the combat zone (when there was one), appreciation for the Boston Herald’s Howie Carr, etc. etc.
In fact, it was a Bostonian, Nate Thayer, who nearly solved the riddle last year, when he the scored an exclusive interview with Pol Pot. Considered the decade’s biggest international scoop and the last major interview in Asia, Thayer’s meeting was Pol Pot’s first with an outsider in 18 years and ended up being the last. “Look at me, am I a savage? My conscience is clear,” the dying 72-year-old told Thayer last October.
Thayer’s stories forced world leaders to finally consider trying the murderer before international courts for crimes against humanity. A week before Pol Pot’s death, Bill Clinton even admitted serious interest in the issue. Now, it’s too late.
Thayer hunted 10-years for the story. During the quest, he trekked 700 kilometers of jungle, was hospitalized 16 times with cerebral malaria, suffered land mine injuries, and led a now mythical hunt for Cambodia’s bizarre endangered cow – the Kupray. Thayer once finagled $478 out of the Associated Press for gin and tonics. “Medical reasons,” he said with a laugh. “You know, tonic contains anti-malarial agents.”
He split UMASS Boston in 1988. “I looked at my life – school, a job and a fiancée from hell – and decided it was all wrong…it was fucking boring.” Thayer scraped by month-to-month, working for Soldier of Fortune magazine and the AP before freelancing for the Far Eastern Economic Review weekly magazine. For the Review, Thayer linked Cambodia’s key political figures to Southeast Asia’s massive heroin trade, and uncovered the last army still fighting the Vietnam War. “I was the first white guy they’d seen in 17 years,” he said. “When I showed up the head of the tribe asked, ‘where are our guns?'”
People here say Thayer’s an inspiration. His Pol Pot story took 10 years of grunt work, an impossibility for reporters who drop into Cambodia only when it’s on the verge of war. Others here have put in their time, like international freelancer and cameraman David McKaige, who accompanied Thayer on his Pol Pot interview.
In the past decade, the fierce eyed 32-year-old McKaige has worked in Bosnia, Africa, Sri-Lanka and other war-torn regions. “I’ll admit it – I’ve been numbed by some of what I’ve seen,” he said, commenting on the height of the Balkan War. “You’d walk into a village and see a young girl who’d just been gang raped an hour earlier, send out the story, and no-one in the world gave a shit. That was hard.”
McKaige stuffed his backpack at the end of his freshman year at Boston College and started hacking through the Cambodia/Thai border freelancing for CBS. These days, he runs AsiaWorks in Bangkok, supplying Southeast Asian news footage to media organizations across the world. McKaige’s work is an uphill battle. Budget cuts by America’s networks (CBS, NBC and ABC), have reduced regional coverage and expertise. “Tokyo bureaus now cover all of Asia,” he said.
Some wire services have also cut budgets, killing coveted “ex-pat packages,” that allowed reporters to live abroad in comfort. Reuters, the British news wire, began acing expat deals in the early 1990s. “Reuters beancounters heralded the death of the ex-pat package,” said Luke Hunt, a quick-witted Australian correspondent based in Hong Kong. “Locals have begun writing what outsiders, who knew their home audiences, once covered.”
On some level this works, as the focus of international news since the Cold War’s end has shifted from politics to business. America and it’s allies no longer fight the Soviet Union to contain communism, but instead wrangle with local leaders to open markets to capitalism. The new weapons are trade agreements and stock markets and news from these battlegrounds doesn’t require the same world-view as coverage of America’s military situation in Asia.
But many here say it’s gone to far, leaving big picture stories by the wayside. McKaige pointed to Reuters, located beneath his AsiaWorks studio, as an example. There, in an office of 25 employees, 23 work on financial news and corporate sales, while two reporters cover general news. “In Asia these days – it’s all fucking business,” McKaige said.
Thayer believes everyone, including corporate types, want to know more. According to the Review’s sales figures for 1997, the two Pol Pot cover stories were last year’s best sellers. “It’s complete bullshit that business people are only interested in investment news,” Thayer said. “People everywhere want to know what the hell’s really going on in the world.”
An interesting point, but how does it apply to Cambodia now that Pol Pot’s gone? He was the evil head of a beastly story about a country utterly destroyed in a side-show to the Vietnam War. The country has no economic stories suited for the 1990s news climate, outside of gun and drug smuggling. Human interest news all but dried up when anti-land mine operatives won last year’s Noble Peace Prize. What’s left?
While pondering such cosmic issues, some correspondent’s fall back on the perverse image of the trade: heavy drink and obnoxious behavior. Take former Reuters correspondent Leo Dobbs who got fired after he called Cambodian Premier Hun Sen’s house at midnight and told Hun’s wife to “fuck off.” Dobb’s, who’s mighty thirst is known as far as Hong Kong, remembered nothing of the incident the following morning until a call came from Reuters rescinding his post.
“You get some crazy people down here,” said Michael Hayes, editor of the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s leading English language paper. “Established journalists don’t want to live in a shithole like this, and that brings in the backpackers.”
Hayes, who arrived lacking journalism experience himself, said fresh blood can be a good thing. Since the Post’s first edition in 1992, he’s relied largely on a pool of freelance talent, led by Thayer, to put out a bi-weekly paper that’s tackled issues no one else will touch. “These guys are the lifeblood of reporting coming out of the third world these days,” he said.
Back at the Foreign Correspondents Club they know this. They’ll tell you Thayer may have been passed over for last year’s Pulitzer Prize earlier this month, but everyone knows it was his work that brought the tragedy of Cambodia back into the world’s headlines. Pol Pot may be dead, but his legacy lives – child soldiers, rocket launchers, jungle warfare…senseless death. Those stories will likely come from the freelancers.
Elections set for this summer should be bloody enough to attract the hordes of international press again, but like they say, if you want to know what’s going on, you have to talk to the people based here. “This place will fill up again soon,” said the reporter at the bar as the moon began to rise. “It’ll be bullshit, but that’s life in Cambodia.”