I tried to stay out of trouble.
I produced my ETV programs, sang at the Bacchus, and wrote articles for the Bangkok World about air pollution and photography exhibits. But I also spent hours in the AUA library, getting ready for my assignment in Laos after Peace Corps.
I got in the habit of calling Ajaan Boonsom and telling her I was working at home that day, then heading over to the library instead. I read every history book on Laos the library shelved; memorized maps of the country; assembled on index cards a “who’s who” of key players in Laos; started a news clippings file, took Maurice to lunches. The more I learned, the madder I got.
Scott McNabb, a Volunteer teaching at Thammasat University, a hotbed of political activism, sent me a copy of the closed-door hearings chaired by Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri on Nixon’s secret war in Laos. Scott had nearly been kicked out of Peace Corps himself for protesting against Agnew’s visit to Thailand.
“They’re heavily edited,” he scribbled on his cover note, “but you already know what’s going on up there.” Reading them, for the first time in my life I started to feel afraid of Nixon, and afraid for our democracy.
Foreign journalists heading up to Laos routinely dropped by the Bangkok World looking for sources to help with their own stories. Sterling gave them my phone number and I met with all of them. It was a way I could do something without getting thrown out of the Peace Corps.
I was impressed with Time magazine bureau chief Stanley Cloud – he didn’t just rely on embassy parties and press handouts for his stories. Over a heady, three-hour lunch, we talked about Brezhnev and Mao, Daniel Berrigan and Jane Fonda. Then we got down to business, swapping information and rumors about Laos. Rumors were the sister or wife of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Cao Ky ran the opium traffic between Laos and Vietnam. I shared what I learned from Bill Young, and recounted my troubling interview with Sankhamseng and the villagers from Taesseng Sene Noy. He paid the bill and asked if I wanted to string for Time in Laos. It could supplement my pay if I took the Bangkok World job. I’d love to, I said. Just give me six more months to finish my TV programs. I was getting to be a broken record.
I met with Al McCoy, a gutsy researcher heading up to the Golden Triangle to investigate the opium trade and rumors of CIA involvement in heroin trafficking (see video “CIA in Laos”on my author page). It was public knowledge some U.S. military personnel were dealing in opium and heroin. Air Force Major Delbert Fleener, a pilot who occasionally ferried U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker around Vietnam, had just been caught smuggling a half a ton of opium into South Vietnam on Air Force planes. GIs were his prime customers. Ten percent of GIs in Vietnam used heroin regularly, according to the Army’s own study. We were shipping home hundreds of heroin addicts a month, making a bad drug problem in the U.S. even worse. Sterling had already given McCoy Bill Young’s name.
Mike Morrow really tested my commitment to finish my Peace Corps assignment. Mike was co-founder of Dispatch News Service International, the small, shoestring, counter-culture news syndicate which broke the infamous My Lai massacre story which stunned America and launched Seymour Hersh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning career. In his room at the Atlanta Hotel, we talked about all sorts of crazy stuff going on in Thailand and Laos. Mike was married to a Vietnamese-Chinese girl, so he primarily worked Vietnam. Dispatch needed someone to cover Thailand and Laos on a regular basis. Was I interested? It’s hard to put in words how excited and honored I felt.
In the world of war journalism, Dispatch was legendary. My Lai had challenged the conscience of America in a way no other Vietnam story had. You couldn’t read it and not wonder if it weren’t time to stop the madness and bring the boys home. But Mike didn’t consider himself a leftist shill. “We’re not an anti-war news service,” he told me. “We’re a pro-truth service.”
A red-haired, near-sighted 24-year-old, Mike grew up in southern Washington state and graduated from Dartmouth. He was a draft dodger, but certainly wasn’t chicken. He did combat coverage in Hue, and rode patrol boats up narrow, muddy jungle rivers into ambushes.
He had just been released from 40 days captivity as a prisoner of the communists in Cambodia. In March 1970, General Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk and turned Cambodia from a neutral kingdom into a republic allied with America and Saigon. A month later, Nixon invaded Cambodia with Lon Nol’s approval, hoping to destroy bases the North Vietnamese had established in the country on the Cambodian-South Vietnam border. Mike followed the U.S. troops in, and outside Svay Rieng, Cambodia, they ran into a communist guerilla unit and were ordered out of their car.
Fortunately, Mike didn’t look like a G.I. – he wore long sideburns and leather sandals, carried no weapon, and spoke Vietnamese fluently. That’s probably what saved his life and the lives of his companions, Elizabeth Pond of the Christian Science Monitor and Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They were held five weeks then released.
He was impressed by his captors, he told me. They traveled light, fought smart, and were absolutely convinced they’d outlast us. Mike was a shot of high octane.
“I got to get to Cambodia,” I told him.
“Go,” Mike said. “Lots going on.”
I should have focused on “Meet Mr. Maitri” – I was falling dangerously behind on my TV scripts for Ajaan Boonsom. Instead, I slipped over the border for a few days. I knew the U.S. State Department prohibited Peace Corps Volunteers in active service from visiting Cambodia, but I told myself I wouldn’t travel all the way to Phnom Penh, just to Battambang, a provincial capital only 100 kilometers from the Thai border. I wouldn’t write anything, just look around.
Battambang reminded me of Vientiane – a small town with French colonial buildings lining a sleepy, slow-moving river, this time the Sanker instead of the Mekong. A big cloth banner with the newly-painted slogan “Long Live the Khmer Republic” arched across the quiet, sunny main street, but the people pedaling along on their bicycles never looked up. The French-speaking hotel keeper refused to share with me his opinion about the future of the new republique, but he firmly assured me Cambodian girls were prettier than Thai girls.
“If Monsieur would like one, it can be arranged for tonight.” The military had imposed an 8 P.M. curfew on the town, so girls had to be brought to the hotel before dinner.
“Merci, non,” I said. He was disappointed.
“Lunch perhaps, and a glass of wine?” he inquired hopefully. Business was down. He no longer sold guests taxi trips to the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat up the road. The Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s home-grown communist equivalent of the Pathet Lao, controlled it.
“C’est completement fou!” he sighed. “They use the priceless statues for target practice. They blow off their heads with rocket grenades.”
The next day, I wandered around town and ran into a knot of cheerful, young men crowded around a squatting street vendor. They were new recruits. The hawker was selling cloth Khmer Republic patches and rank stripes. Nearby a solemn-faced, older soldier in olive drab smoked a cigarette and watched. He spoke French. He was their capitaine, he told me.
I asked him what he thought of the change of government. “Ca m’est egal,” he shrugged. He had served under Sihanouk for many years. The people liked the Prince. But he himself was a soldier, and now took his orders from General Lon Nol.
One of the boys came over and showed the Captain a patch. He nodded, dug into his pocket and gave him a few riel. The boy paid the hawker and thumbed the stripe against his sleeve, modeling it for his friends. They mock-saluted him, then broke up giggling.
These are kids about to be killed, I thought. They’re no match for the battle-hardened North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge Mike Morrow described to me. The capitaine and his boys boarded the truck. I asked if I could take a photograph of them. The ones who had helmets put them on, everybody smiled and waved.
I still have the photo.