The Land Rover with US Diplomatic plates bumped over the dirt road through the xerophytic forest along the Thai-Cambodian border, progressing eastwards from the border city of Aranyaprathet through the Thai Changwat of Surin, Buriram, and Sisaket. Two officers of AmEmbassy Bangkok--Uncle Cephas and his senior colleague--sat in luxurious, air-conditioned comfort sipping cool, bottled beverages as they discussed their assignment of reporting on conditions in border camps for Cambodian displaced persons. A plump, cheerful Thai Foreign Service National employee whom I will dub Khun Somchai for the sake of the narrative negotiated the potholes and clouds of laterite dust. Occasionally, we would pass an irrigation ditch in which laughing, healthy, olive-brown children merrily splashed away the shimmering dry season heat, a few boasting briefs, others (generally male) completely naked.
The forest broke to reveal a clearing in which stood a simple baan, or house, built of wood, bamboo, and thatch standing on sturdy wooden piles. A long clothesline extended from the house to a nearby tree, sporting a colorful array of drying laundry suiting every member of the household. A telephone antenna perched on a bamboo pole swayed lazily over the roof, while electrical wire ran from a utility pole to power the house's utensils. Underneath, where yesteryear's water buffalo would have sheltered, a small, red pickup truck was parked.
At that point, my senior colleague grew uneasy, noted the absence of road signs, and asked a question of the driver.
"Khun Somchai, how can we be sure we haven't driven across the border?"
After all, it was 1991, and civil war was still raging inside Cambodia, where the mines lay thick on the ground, and a carload of US diplomatic personnel that was supposed to be in Thailand blowing up inside Cambodia would be a messy international incident.
Further, language would not have distinguished the people on the two sides of the border. Most of the inhabitants were either ethnic Khmer or Soay and spoke those languages at home and in their villages, with those on the Thai side having learned the Thai of Bangkok in school and from media, and those on the Cambodian side having acquired that same language out of the necessity of getting access to the only functioning economy in the area.
Khun Somchai, blessed with the good-natured smile that seems the birthright of every Thai, was quick with his reply. "You saw that house back there. If we run across one that has only a quarter of the laundry, no TV, and no truck, we'll know we're in Cambodia and will have to turn around."
Perhaps a mile after the next fork in the road, a brown-clad, heavily armed man with all the badges and insignia that marked a member of the Aw Saw, or Thai Border Police, stepped out of the underbrush and hastened to flag us down. He gave the typical polite wai of greeting, then pointed to a tree scarcely a hundred yards away:
"Bai mai dai, khrap! Mai nan yu Khameen!"--"You can't procede! That tree is in Cambodia!"
A little more give-and-take between the Aw Saw and Khun Somchai revealed that a week earlier, guerrillas--whether Democratic Kampuchea, Sihanoukhist, or the Sonn Sann faction is immaterial--had laid out mines in the road. Hence, I felt very thankful to a merciful Providence that the Aw Saw had just happened to reach that point on his rounds at that time. Otherwise, I could have been blown to smithereens; and if not killed instantly, probably left lying in agony in the twisted wreckage of the Land Rover with nobody knowing or caring until it would have been way too late.
Back on the right road, we ultimately reached a town to meet up with a member of UNBRO--the United Nations Border Relief Organization--a group separate from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and set up to allay the Royal Thai Government's unease with declaring the Cambodians "refugees" rather than "displaced persons". Compared to the larger organization, it was an efficient, well-run outfit with its ear to the ground and ready to report any problem to both the Thai and international authorities. It was also necessary for us to deal with them, for while we were free to deal face to face with internal administrations of DP Camps that were of the Sihanouk and Sonn San factions, we could deal with the Democratic Kampuchea people (Pol Pot's people) only under UN escort--and this was necessitated from time to time due to the US government's donations of vegetable oil and its humanitarian concerns over whether the camp populations were being abused in any way.
Well, normalcy genrally prevailed in the camp, which was called OTrao, even though it had been the seen in the past of DP's being moved back over the border to serve as porters for the Democratic Kampuchea faction and sometimes summarily executed. DPs managed an in-camp economy, which, thankfully, did not include too egregious siphoning off of US-donated food aid.
However, there were Democratic Kampuchea troops on R&R in the camp--the very faction that had killed between one quarter and one third of the Cambodian population during the time it had held power (1975-1978). I was face to face with the very people who had given the world the killing fields, alhtough, thankfully, these soldiers were not armed at the time. The DK men were physically small and quiet, impeccably uniformed in Chinese-style olive drab. None spoke as camp officials spoke with the UNBRO people through an interpreter, but they watched us nonetheless.
And it was then that I suddenly developed a belief in zombies. Yes, the camps were full of people fatigued beyond endurance from the horrors of war, famine, disease, the loss of loved ones, and displacement. Yet these physically small, quiet men were more blank-faced and emotionless as slaughtered cattle, despite their being able to move and breathe. There eyes were, perhaps, the most perfect blanks of any I had ever seen. Perhaps it was the strain of recent fighting, perhaps there actually was something soul-killing about participation in gruesome atrocities, perhaps a combination of the two. Either way, these men seemed to be more of the netherworld than of that of the living.
Mao Zedong had told Pol Pot (aka Saloth Sar), their leader, that he was accomplishing things of which Mao himself had only dreamed. Quite an admission from a ruler whose political victims numbered several tens of millions, and whose visionary programs trained a generation of Chinese to accept state-imposed suffering while beguiling and dazzling gullible Western intellectuals. Pol Pot himself, as well as his henchman Khieu Samphan, were themselves products of the best education the French Left could provide its erstwhile colonials, and were themselves working out a variant of the Marxist vision adapted to a Third World agrarian country. And they had brought little save a vicious cycle of want, misery, violence, and death.