In a subterranean bunker in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, members of a secret government organization–Angkor–meet to discuss how the ruling regime can maintain their loosening grip on power with national elections on the horizon.
At the same time, a major anti-immigration rally in front of Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese market is scheduled to take place, and American journalist Alex Speransky is desperate for a major scoop to reinvigorate his stagnant career.
When Alex receives word that a terrorist attack has been planned for the demonstration that evening, he thinks he has hit the jackpot. But Angkor is also aware of Alex, and they are aware that he is in love with a beautiful Khmer woman named Kimheng. With the clock ticking, Alex will have to choose whether his goal of becoming a famous correspondent is more important than the lives of countless Cambodians, including the woman who has stolen his heart.
Taking place over the course of a single day, Tim LaRocco’s first novel, Midnight in Cambodia, takes the reader on a journey through modern Cambodia: its markets and food, the countryside, and the litany of social and political problems that can be traced to a past as dark and tragic as anywhere in the world.
Khmer440 contributor Tim LaRocco’s first book, Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain, was published in 2013. Midnight in Cambodia will be published by Invisible Man Press in New York in the next week or two, available as both hard copy and online. Here is the first chapter:
If you were traveling due south along the riverside road in Phnom Penh, you would pass a very large casino called Naga World and a bridge leading to Koh Pich, or Diamond Island. But if you were to venture just a little further down the road, you would come to an unspectacular government building. The building was an oblong structure, with cream-colored concrete walls and red terracotta tiles placed on a roof curving upwards in classical Asian style. This was due to an ancient Buddhist belief of warding off evil spirits, which always come in straight lines.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation was only two stories tall, seeming to emphasize Cambodia’s role as a very minor player in contemporary geopolitics. At the far end of the mezzanine level, a singular man stood smoking a cigarette and looking out at the bridge from behind a partially opened window. Brigadier General Hen Vichet was standing in the same exact spot during the last night of the 2010 Khmer Water Festival, and had an eagle’s eye view of the human stampede that crushed nearly 350 young people to death.
Vichet was in his mid-sixties, the typical age for political commissars to have earned significant influence inside Cambodia’s ruling party. Years of smoking and drinking had done little good for his face, which was white and wrinkled, with his bloodshot brown eyes.
If his wife saw him smoking now, she would ceaselessly berate him until he stubbed the cigarette out, but then she would switch to lamenting Vichet’s blood pressure, his weight, or maybe even his alcoholism. His wife would question how on Earth could the career of a civil servant like Vichet be so stressful, and she even sometimes pondered whether it was their marriage that drove him to such depravities.
He put the cigarette out, closed the window and marched across the room towards the elevator, smoke trailing behind him like a steam engine. If his wife could see him now, she would castigate him for taking an elevator downstairs despite only being on the second floor. But alas, the wife of Major General Hen Vichet did not know everything he did at work in the Ministry.
The elevator panel contained three, shiny buttons. One button had the number one on it; another had the number two. The third button was peculiar because it contained no number at all. Instead, it was imprinted with a holographic miniature Angkor Wat. Bureaucrats, secretaries, and visitors alike had all pressed it at some point out of sheer curiosity, but nothing happened. They pressed it repeatedly over and over again but the elevator would not move. Eventually, most gave up and pressed the button with the one or the two on it to go wherever it was they needed to go. It spoke to the general sense of passivity underpinning the culture that the workers at the Ministry rarely took the stairs.
Only six people in the entire world could successfully press the button with the holographic miniature Angkor Wat to send the elevator to a secret destination prohibited to all others. The button automatically read an individual’s fingerprint through a biometrics scanner. One of those six was the Prime Minister. The other five were members of an elite section of the Cambodian Intelligence Services, Directorate 2074. The section, known only to the individuals who belonged to it, was simply called Angkor.
Vichet, the nominal leader of the group when the PM wasn’t present, pressed the Angkor Wat button, and the elevator promptly descended below the first floor and continued downward 50 meters into the ground. When the doors opened, Vichet strode out into a subterranean bunker of murky light and warm, stagnant air.
He was greeted with subtle head nods by four other men sitting around a circular wooden table, all dressed in the same olive green army fatigues as he was. The light made everything in the room seem a strange sepia shade, as if one were walking into an old black and white photograph.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Vichet announced. “The PM sends his apologies, but he won’t be attending our get together today. A trade delegation from Beijing has arrived this morning and obviously it’s all hands on deck when the Chinese and their money come to town.”
Around the room, heads nodded further in understanding, and some even cracked a smile. Everyone had a cigarette either between their fingers or balanced on an ashtray, and smoke hung over their heads. They all had a dossier in front of them giving the reason for today’s secret Angkor meeting.
“You have all, presumably, read the brief that was sent to you over the confidential server,” Vichet continued, running a hand over his cropped black hair. “Cambodia is coming to a critical juncture, gentlemen. Freedom International has once again ranked our country the most corrupt in Southeast Asia, we have national elections next month, and our people, especially in the cities, are growing restless and hankering for political change. We are meeting today to ensure that nothing of the sort happens.”
A small man with glasses and wispy hair raised his hand. Brigadier General Heng Bony was born in a small village in Steung Treng province, and grew up without so much as flip-flops. But in the years after the war, he had befriended the man who would become the country’s leader, and had subsequently risen to become one of the richest individuals in the nation.
“I have read the dossier, gentleman, and would like to say I endorse the proposal to the fullest extent,” he said. “In the countryside, our party still enjoys the support of the majority. The farmers and fishermen are proletariat leftovers from our experiment with communism, and they do not possess an ounce of critical thought. It is these young people in the cities that are giving us cause for concern. They are being taught by foreigners from the West these days, barangs who come to our country to lecture us about social justice and equality even as they enjoy palatial salaries five or six times higher than what a similarly qualified local would be paid.” He paused to push back a wisp of hair that had fallen over his forehead. “This situation is untenable and needs to be curtailed immediately. I am pleased to say that I believe this operation, if executed flawlessly, will succeed in that effort.”
A stout fellow with a bald head and a gigantic mole on his left cheek stood up next. Major Brigadier Sok Raksmey was half-Vietnamese, and was the regime’s closest confidant of Hanoi. He carried himself with a supercilious air and, wherever he went, the scent of his expensive French cologne followed in his wake. Raksmey found the piquant aroma pleasant, but the others thought it smelled dry and stale like balsa wood.
“I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague,” Raksmey said firmly, punctuating his words with puffs of smoke he blew out through his nostrils like a dragon. “It is of note that our friends across the border are becoming very concerned with how events are unfolding. The opposition leader here has not hid the fact that if he wins the upcoming election, he will remove all of the illegal Vietnamese from Cambodia without prejudice. Needless to say, our party requires the electoral support of this demographic to maintain its political hegemony. If these people are removed from the country, our party might never recover.”
Once more, there was universal agreement around the room.
The fourth man to speak was not only a member of Angkor, but a Deputy Prime Minister. Even though there were fourteen other people with that title in Cambodia, Brigadier General Chou Bunthoeurn was considered the second-in-line at Government House, Phnom Penh. “The time has come, gentlemen, when tough and bloody decisions need to be made.” He usually spoke eloquently and with great articulation, like a man who is familiar with the delicate vocabulary of the political lexicon. But his words were exceptionally blunt when speaking to his fellow comrades in Angkor. “All of us are survivors: of war, genocide, and poverty. We all have that survival instinct in our DNA. We need to rely on it here and now as we seek to survive, not just politically, but financially as well. Because I can assure you, gentlemen, if we are knocked out of power, the people will be out for our heads!”
The last man to speak, Brigadier General Sorn David, was by far the youngest member of the group, being in his mid-30s. The years had not yet corrupted his physical appearance and he had a face full of right angles beneath a gossamer layer of black hair. He usually played the role of devil’s advocate during Angkor meetings. It was not a role he relished, as it routinely generated fierce opprobrium from the others. But it was a role that needed to be staffed by someone, they all agreed, lest the meetings devolved into communist-style groupthink sessions.
“I have serious concerns about the plan, if I may be frank,” said David. “First of all, who will be the conduit?”
Vichet answered for the group. “That is being handled by our asset inside the local Vietnamese mafia, Mister Con Ho. Apparently, there is a jewel seller from the market, and a prostitute as well, who are indebted to him to such an extent that they will not be able to turn down the assignment. Con Ho will play carrot and stick with them.”
“Mostly stick, I’d imagine,” said Bony. “My God, who isn’t indebted to that maniac yuon these days? I hear he runs quite the gambling racket at Kandal market.”
Raksmey, half-Vietnamese himself, blanched at Bony’s use of the racially-charged term.
“I supposed it’d be better to be indebted to you, Bony, and your colossal business empire, eh?” Bunthoeurn teased in a flat voice. “In any event, I tend to agree with you. I know Con Ho. He’s a bloodthirsty animal.”
“He has his purposes,” parried Vichet. “He’s what old comrade Lenin would call a useful idiot.”
David maintained the scowl on his face and pressed the issue. “So are we to believe this operation hinges on some poor, card-playing addict from the market and a srey yuon hooker? That hardly instills confidence, Vichet.”
“According to our surveillance reports,” piped in Raksmey, “the jewel seller is ex-People’s Army and familiar with explosives from his time during the war. Seems like a rather lucky find, if you ask me.”
“Why does this operation have to proceed tonight? We have only received the dossier two weeks ago. This all seems hastily put together,” David argued.
“We simply don’t know when the next anti-immigrant protest will be,” answered Vichet. “This one has been in the works for some time now. It is a great opportunity that might not present itself again. We have to act now!”
“Attacking our own citizens in the way this operation calls for is much further than we have ever been prepared to go before. It’s quite unprecedented,” said David.
“It’s hardly unprecedented,” Bony said disagreeably. “You were only a kid, David, when your predecessor in this group cast the deciding vote to launch Operation 397.”
Vichet, Raksmey, and Bunthoeurn all nodded their heads in understanding. The reference was to a grenade attack on opposition party protesters staging an anti-corruption rally in Phnom Penh in March, 1997. It was speculated by journalists and international investigators to have been an assassination attempt on the opposition leader, who ultimately survived. Seventeen others, however, were killed, and dozens more lost limbs.
David seemed resigned, but proud that he had at least made the attempt to question the operation. He sank slowly back into his leather chair, indicating he was finished.
“So do we have consensus, gentleman? Can we get a raise of hands from all those in favor of the operation?” Vichet asked the cohort. One by one, they raised their hands. Consensus was reached.
“I know it is not an easy decision to make, to kill one’s own countrymen. But desperate times call for desperate action,” said Vichet. “I will inform the PM of our decision. Keep your phones on the secure line. We must maintain operational conditions throughout the day.”