At the start of his book “Cambodian Diary, A Long Road to Peace, 1987-1993,” Jacques Bekaert thanks Luon Kim Khuon, the man who, on the road from Kompong Speu to Takeo province, “courageously” prevented a drunken soldier from shooting him dead, thus saving the Belgian journalist’s life.
This incident took place in 1990 while Mr Kim Khuon–now Cambodia’s consul general in Ho Chi Minh City–was acting as Mr Bekaert’s guide during a visit to Cambodia.
Covering Cambodia as a journalist in the 1980s meant working in a war zone, deep into the jungle and where the front line fluctuated over the course of regular offensives by Cambodian government forces backed by Vietnamese troops or their opposing military factions on the Thai border, which included the Khmer Rouge.
Every week from 1983 to 1993, Mr Bekaert would address the military and political situation in his “Cambodian Diary” column in the Bangkok Post, clarifying the most complex issues in the space of a few lines and adding personal details about places and people involved in the unfolding Cambodia drama.
“Long Road to Peace,” which was published in 1998 and his previous book, “Cambodian Diary, Tales of a Divided Nation, 1983-1986” released a year earlier, contained many of the columns Mr Bekaert wrote for the Bangkok Post.
Both of Bekaert’s columns and later books were mandatory reading for journalists and researchers who wished to understand Cambodia’s political and military situation during the 1980s and early 19990s.
Mr Bekaert, who will turn 70 in May, was far from a rookie reporter when he arrived in Bangkok in early February 1979 and began to chronicle events in Cambodia more or less by chance.
For years, he had been writing for Belgian and French newspapers as well as doing radio and television broadcast.
In the US, he had covered the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon in August 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
“It was a significant moment, the end of a face of America which was in fact disappointing, narrow minded,” he said of the early 1970s.
Also in 1974, he covered the collapse of the military junta in Greece and the return of democracy.
“But I believe that the most extraordinary event I lived as a journalist was the visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem,” Mr Bekaert said in an interview.
In November 1977, the Egyptian president had gone to Israel as a step towards peace between Arab nations and Israel.
“It was one of those moments in history when one believed that something would happen. And something did happen, although it later failed. Human beings are small-minded and lack imagination,” Mr Bekaert said.
Although news coverage was his profession for nearly three decades, Mr Bekaert could nearly be called an accidental journalist.
His first love was music. Even today, he continues to compose and have his pieces of contemporary classical music performed. He currently has two commissions to complete and his latest work finished last month will soon be played in the US.
Music saved him when he needed to regain hope in humankind, he said.
His life had begun as it would for many Cambodians in the 1970s and 1980s: in the middle of war.
“I was born a few hours after the German invasion of Belgium,” which started on May 10, 1940, he said. Fleeing the invading army, his mother gave birth at dawn on May 11 in the city of Bruges.
One of his most vivid childhood memories is, he said, “the sound of V1 [bombs] falling towards the end of the war and the hissing of the [German bomber] Stuka. I hate sirens, violent ringing to this day.”
Moreover, like many Cambodians today whose parents never spoke of the Khmer Rouge era, Mr Bekaert would learn about the atrocities committed by Germany’s Nazi regime in World War II not from his father, who joined the resistance against the Germans, or his uncle, interned in a concentration camp, but from documentary films and books when he was a teenager.
The realization nearly drove him to despair, wondering whether, if people were capable of such cruelty, life had any meaning, he said.
“More than anything, what saved me at the time was two things: literature and especially poetry, and music.”
It was music–but also a woman–that prompted Mr Bekaert to go New York City in the mid-1960s, he said.
As soon as he arrived in the city, he took the subway and headed for Greenwich Village where all those intent on pushing boundaries in the arts, culture and social norms had converged. It was a mild day in spring, he recalls.
“There were masses of people….It was extraordinary: the whole world was walking the streets.”
One day in the Village, Mr Bekaert said, “Someone told me, ‘You’re a music composer. Can you write something? We have a concert in three weeks.’ They did not ask me with whom I had studied or who my father was. Just, ‘Come on, do it.'”
“This is something that captivated me: that…if you are a musician, you just make music,” he said.
Looking for ways to earn a living in New York, Mr Bekaert started to write for Belgian newspapers on events in the US such as, in 1968, the national elections and the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“And this is how, without being really aware of it, I became a journalist,” he said.
Soon, he was also working for a newspaper in France as well as for radio and television, sharing his time between the US and Belgium, while composing music and occasionally performing with a group.
Mr Bekaert’s decision to come to Bangkok to cover Cambodia in 1979 again was more a matter of doing it than a well thought-out move.
In 1978, the newspaper Le Quotidien de Paris, for which he had been working on a regular basis, closed its doors, he explained. A journalist friend suggested going to Bangkok as the Khmer Rouge were organizing press visits at China’s suggestion. They decided to wait until the end of December to make the trip.
On Dec 25, 1978, the Vietnamese forces launched a major offensive on the Khmer Rouge and by Jan 7 had ousted the Pol Pot regime.
Nevertheless, Mr Bekaert decided to go to Thailand although he knew little of that country or Cambodia.
In early February 1979, he landed in Bangkok armed only with the address of the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration-now called the International Organization for Migration.
The agency staff offered to take him to a refugee camp of former Lon Nol soldiers in Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian border.
Once there, he stayed at a modest hotel and, at dawn the next day, went alone to explore the border. Lost, he suddenly came face to face with a group of people dressed in black Khmer Rouge clothing. Mainly women, children and older people, they looked confused, not sure whether they had crossed the border, Mr Bekaert said.
They were among the first Cambodian refugees to flee the country after the Vietnamese takeover and, since they had not seen a Westerner for a very long time, were as stunned to see him as he was at meeting them, he said.
Shortly after his arrival, The Nation newspaper in Bangkok asked him to cover the Cambodian situation. He would start working for the Bangkok Post in 1983.
In the 1980s, Mr Bekaert was a stringer for the BBC, and wrote for the French paper Le Monde and other publications including Jane’s Defense Weekly, which covers conflict zones and military issues.
He wrote on the situation inside Cambodia, making his first visit to Phnom Penh in 1983 as part of a group of journalists, and in the border refugee camps in Thailand.
He also reported on the Cambodian government and opposing political groups in the refugee camps, and on the negotiations that would eventually lead to the singing of the Paris Peace Agreements in October 1991.
In 1992, Mr Bekaert’s wife Shirley died of cancer. An American of African, Native Cheyenne and Swedish background, she had been a fashion designer in New York when he had first met her in the late 1960s, and had authored a book on the origins of US cuisine.
With the passing of his wife, Mr Bekaert was ready for a change when he was approached by the Sovereign Order of Malta, a medical-and-humanitarian aid order founded in 1048 and holding the status of a country, which was running leprosy care programs in Cambodia and at the refugee camps.
At first, Mr Bekaert hesitated, saying that he was not a diplomat, but was told that all he had to do was not work as a journalist while continuing to compose music and writing on non-political matters. One of his tasks would be to open the Order of Malta’s Embassy in Phnom Penh after the government had been formed in 1993.
At first, Mr Bekeart said, “I especially dealt with tracking down missing persons, which was made possible due to the fact that the Order had nothing to gain financially and is politically neutral.”
Today, he holds the title of minister adviser for the Order in Cambodia and Thailand. His duties involve maintaining good relations with local and national governments, and to be available as an intermediary in the case of conflict between countries.
The Order’s programs in Cambodia include leprosy treatment and prevention; a basic healthcare program near the Thai border in Oddar Meanchey province; and a prison food program for women and children, he said.
Twenty years ago this weekend, on Feb 6, 1990, Mr Bekaert wrote in the Bangkok Post: “While the majority of Cambodians are struggling to ensure their daily subsistence, merchants, businessmen, some party and state officials are getting rich and displaying their newly acquired wealth. [M]any are worried–extremely worried–by what they see: corruption, inflation, social disorder and the sounds of war.”
The sounds of war would eventually fade away and stability would replace the insecurity of that period. But those other concerns voiced in 1990 are now at the forefront of national debate.
Asked whether the level of corruption in Cambodia has changed over the last two decades, Mr Bekeart turned philosophical.
“Societies the world over are far from perfect. And they will never be. One must not delude oneself. But one can try to make improvements,” he said.
“Democracy requires a long apprenticeship,” he said, and at times nearly goes against human nature, as it is so human for public servants to wish to use and abuse their positions in order to feel important. Moreover, some societies have a long tradition of patronage and of not questioning authority, he noted.
“Something that is not at all unique to Cambodia is the gap between rich and poor, which is truly wide,” Mr Bekaert said. Bridging that gap is part of a country’s development but, he said, “It may sound cruel to say this because it creates an impression of inevitability, but the wealthy will always wish to remain wealthy.”
One factor that will influence Cambodia immensely is globalization: it is forcing all Southeast Asian countries to progress faster than Western countries did, Mr Bekaert said.
The populations of regional countries are now better informed than ever before, and are exposed to debates on issues as wide ranging as terrorism, the role of the state, and ecology, Mr Bekaert said.
As a result, he said, “These are issues that societies cannot ignore.”