From Hunter to Hunted

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought hed seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar

At 6:45 a.m., I'm awakened in my bed at the Little Saigon Inn by a worrisome text message from a man who's already told me enough disturbing tales to keep me in nightmares for weeks.

"I'm on my way to the gym. The Mercedes is still parked outside. I should make him some coffee, perhaps. The poor guy has been out there all night."

"What?" I write back, eyeing the chair I had propped against the door the night before. This is Garden Grove, not Ho Chi Minh City. Isn't he being a little theatrical?

Click photo to go to slideshow.
Click photo to go to slideshow.

Possibly, but the story Aaron Cohen needs to tell has brought me from Southeast Asia to Southwest Florida and now to Orange County, where I've already been waiting two weeks for him to materialize. I guess when you're in a tunnel hiding out from the Burmese army, you can't worry too much about returning a journalist's phone calls.

Cohen is a "slave hunter," a specialist in identifying and, in some cases, retrieving the unfortunate human beings who are trafficked for labor and/or sexual purposes—a remarkably prevalent and lucrative global trade. So far, the job has brought him to dozens of countries such as Colombia, Sudan and Cambodia, where the business of human flesh is of special concern to the U.S. State Department and other agencies or governments who subcontract his services. He is what is known in covert operations as a NOC, a special agent working under "non-official cover," but unlike an agency man, Cohen's primary allegiance is to people, not political agendas.

What makes Cohen's story even more unusual is that he used to be known as Perry Farrell's best friend and spiritual collaborator. Their mutual passion for music and human rights led Cohen and the Jane's Addiction front man to help Bono and Bob Geldof deliver, in 1999, the 17 million signatures that persuaded G8 bankers to drop the debt of developing countries. But since embarking on his unorthodox new career, Cohen has gone places your typical e-mail petitioner and Sunday-afternoon activist have never even heard of. He has survived a shooting in Haiti and an alleged poisoning in a Westminster restaurant, along with a string of other near-death experiences, most recently in the backwaters of Myanmar, where he believes he saw evidence of a far more dangerous trade—the production and selling of enriched uranium.

So last night, when he offered to let me sleep in one of his four empty bedrooms, I thought better of it. As I pulled away, Cohen pointed to a beige Mercedes parked out front. I couldn't see a driver. "They'll probably follow you," he said, and then walked inside before I had a chance to ask who "they" might be. Nevertheless, I found myself checking my rearview all the way to the Little Saigon Inn, where dreams of its advertised Wi-Fi and heated pool promised to dull the images of the enslaved preteens Cohen had been conjuring up for me all day. Both enticements were, in the words of motel management, "broken."

I went to bed trying to grasp how Cohen went from talking mysticism and Lollapalooza with Perry Farrell to assessing global human-trafficking trends, breaking Vietnamese girls out of Cambodian brothels and being hunted down by the Burmese army. And now, this morning, another text message about the Mercedes:

"He's the night guy they have on me. I'm sure you'll have Feds flagging you today. Watch your 6. I'm starting to be concerned about all this and feel uneasy."

I'm feeling a little edgy, too, but maybe it's only the lack of sleep and a slight caffeine addiction. I splash water on my face and drive to a nearby strip mall anchored by a Taco Bell, which nearly obscures a lively Vietnamese cafť. The patio is packed with graying, well-dressed Vietnamese men in small groups—the old guard, I think, ex-military who shipped out before the Communist takeover 32 years ago. Professorial in tweedy pants, turtlenecks and neat sweaters, they smile and nod as I pass—not unnoticed. Few non-natives venture in here, it seems, and the only women are the ones behind the counter—just like in Vietnam.

After ordering a bowl of pho and iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, I finish reading Cohen's journal entries. His uneasiness seems justified in the context of his most recent mission to Myanmar (formerly and, to the U.S., still Burma), which has been run by a series of repressive military juntas since 1962. In March, the Royal Thai Police and Council for National Security (the military government that overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin in September 2006) sent Cohen there to investigate the Burmese government's alleged use of slave labor to build infrastructure in Naypyidaw, the country's sprawling new jungle capital. (In 2005, the ruling generals relocated the capital overnight from Yangon—formerly Rangoon—a move Al Jazeera said had been motivated by "superstition, megalomania and paranoia.")

Despite more than a decade of Western sanctions against the Burmese government—the so-called "State Peace and Development Council," which changed its name in 1997 after consulting a Washington, D.C., public-relations firm—the pariah nation stays afloat with funds primarily from India, Russia and China, countries that trade arms and cash for Myanmar's rich supply of oil and other natural resources. The latter two vetoed the U.N. Security Council's January resolution urging Myanmar to stop the persecution of political prisoners and brutal military tactics many have called "genocide." Largely thanks to China, the SPDC's army is, after Vietnam's, the second largest in Southeast Asia—and notorious for conscription of child soldiers and using rape as a weapon against civilians.

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