Fear and Diplomacy in Phnom Penh

In John Lathrop’s book “The End of the Monsoon,” a US diplomat in Cambodia, Michael Smith, starts an affair with Zainab, the black wife of a British diplomat, an affair that soon turns into a love story.

Zainab, an attorney and former television presenter in England, gets involved with the opposition party during the 2008 Cambodian national election, recommending political platforms that bring upon her the government’s animosity and expose the lovers to danger.

There is enough action and suspense in this book to qualify as a thriller, but a thriller with a great deal of substance, such as the moral dilemma Michael faces when his duty suddenly involves endorsing corruption and the issues of religion and faith he confronts as Zainab embraces Buddhism.

The story, which takes place between December 2008 and October 2009, is of course a work of fiction. This said, events described are wholly plausible–sometimes disturbingly so–ranging from a hot-air balloon accident in Angkor park to covert assaults against demonstrators in Phnom Penh and a discreet assassination scheme in the countryside.

Characters also ring true. There is the US Embassy’s commercial officer that embassy staff believe is a CIA agent whose paid informants include a US freelance journalist of dubious ethics, a medical doctor compromised due to accusations of pedophilia, and a former British special-forces officer serving as the British ambassador’s bodyguard, who resorts to guerrilla tactics when need be.

The character of Michael sounds eminently credible as a former soldier and pilot who worked on Wall Street before joining the US Foreign Service as the economics officer. Cambodia is his second foreign posting, and he has just arrived in the country.

Michael is the narrator in the book, telling the story with an economy of words that fits his profile.

The environment he portrays is strictly that of “official” expats who go from one diplomatic or Cambodian government reception to the next. Describing his first meeting with Zainab, Michael says: “We introduced ourselves the way expats do. In two minutes we had the other’s name, job, time in-country and marital status.”

Mr Lathrop perfectly captures the atmosphere of those social gatherings, which, whether the dress code on the invitation specifies “Business Attire,” “Lounge Suit/National Dress/Uniform” or “Casual,” are opportunities for embassy and Cambodian officials to discuss matters more or less off the record. While the quality of the food and drinks may vary, each event remains a command performance for most of those who attend, and they never truly let their guard down. As Michael says of a casual meeting with a Cambodian politician: “I was about to say something anodyne–even minor diplomats aren’t supposed to stick their neck out in public.”

This need for restraint may be one reason why, Michael notes, embassy staff tend to socialize among themselves rather than mixing with NGO workers and expats in general.

This does not prevent them from patronizing restaurants and bars, such as the notorious Martini’s where Michael ends up one night and dines while watching a foreign action movie with Russian Embassy staff at the next table.

His comments on the country are those of a person who has been in Cambodia for only a short period but takes the time to observe the situation. Through Zainab, however, he ends up in places he might not have visited on his own accord, such as pagodas in Phnom Penh or the remote 12th-century monument of Banteay Chhmar in Banteay Meanchey province.

This book, which was released last year in Great Britain by John Murray (Publishers), is Mr Lathrop’s second thriller, his first having been set in the Middle East where he worked for nearly 15 years.

As scenes in this book make obvious, this author, who was born in the US in 1961, can pilot a plane. His first career was with the US Air Force, which he left after four years to attend college in Los Angeles. He later worked for the US Peace Corps in the Philippines. An expert on the Linux computer operating system, he has written several books on the topic. He now lives in Calgary.

Mr Lathrop’s first visit to Cambodia was a two-week holiday in late 2006, he wrote in an e-mail. “The environment seemed perfect to me for the kind of novel I had to write: What my literary agent described as a ‘political thriller with a tightly interwoven love story.’ The atmosphere of Cambodia–political, economic, even climatic–is perfect for a novel of political corruption and sexual passion. In addition, for personal reasons I wished to insert a Buddhist sub-theme into the story, and Buddhism suffuses life there,” he said.

Mr Lathrop then spent seven months in the country, conducting research and meeting people involved in various fields.

While his characters are fictional, some of them were inspired by individuals he met. “Of course the book’s characters were not exact or accurate character portrayals of real persons. But I find it interesting, as a writer, that the most empathetic and admirable characters in the book were the ones inspired by actual people rather than wholly made up in my imagination,” he said.

His contacts in the country included an inside source: a senior officer from the US Foreign Service who preferred to remain anonymous. While in the book no secret is revealed regarding the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, the insights into the way embassy staff in general think and work are quite interesting.

For example, when the boat on which the US Embassy is giving a party starts to sink, the main concern of the embassy’s senior staff is to make sure that no American is injured, focusing only later on the welfare of foreign and Cambodian dignitaries aboard. This is a reminder that, no matter how much diplomats may care about the country in which they are based, their loyalty is first and foremost to their own countries and nationals.

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