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

In the few weeks since Cohen returned from Myanmar, the country has restored ties with North Korea, signed a cash deal for a Russian nuclear reactor and vowed to "crush" state opponents. One of those is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader whose party overwhelmingly won a general election in 1990 but has since been terrorized and rendered largely impotent by the state. Suu Kyi has spent more than 11 of the past 17 years under various forms of detention, and on May 29, the government extended her house arrest once again—so much for its self-styled "road map to democracy."

Cohen had no trouble finding slaves in Myanmar and neighboring Laos, where he says kidnapped Vietnamese, Laotian and ethnic-minority boys with guns guard heroin and methamphetamine labs for the mafias that control trafficking routes. But he started hearing far more sinister rumors, as noted in his journal:

I am advised that Burmese tradition holds an ancient legend still believed to be practiced even today in the art of human sacrifice—that every time the ruler moves the capital, four people are to be sacrificed at each of the four corners of the foundation to the facility. Human sacrifice is also carried out under, above and on each side of each bridge crossing the moats corresponding to the 12 astrological signs and the seven passages leading into the capital.

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

"There are 72 human sacrifices in all, preferably all foreign agents," the vice minister says with a twinkle in his eye. "Yes, preferably foreign agents trying to infiltrate national security or threaten the business of the ruling party." But this ruling party is using slave labor to build elaborate pagodas for the Buddhist cultural centers, and people are dying.

Why is the vice minister telling me this? I am not sure if he's a double because he seems to be threatening me about my mission to free the pagoda slave-labor crew. I say no to the pork and am careful not to drink or eat anything offered to me by my perceived allies. We finish the meeting, and I go to eat some bok choy and eggs from a vendor down the road.

I'm brought out of this surreal picture by the young waiter bemusedly watching me eat my noodle soup. "You use chopsticks very well, older sister," he notes in Vietnamese, at the speed usually reserved for white people who inexplicably speak this tonal language. I'm about to tell him I've used them since I was a child, but hold back when I realize the men at the surrounding tables are hanging on our words. I wonder if any of these kindly uncles are the Vietnamese government spies I've been told mix into the crowd at these cafťs, scribbling down tidbits they overhear while hiding behind their copies of Nguoi Viet, the exiles' daily of choice.

But the grizzled folk next to me are talking about their teenage children's cell-phone bills, which are astronomical because of this thing they call "Nhan tin." "Texting!" one of them repeats in English, before switching back to Southern-inflected Vietnamese. "It's out of hand. Five thousand text messages a month!" The others nod, sip their coffee through straws and turn their gaze to the large-screen TV blasting CNN. The couple behind me are talking too softly for me to make out much, but I distinctly hear "ma-fia" a couple of times. I turn back to Cohen's diary:

The beautiful French agent I meet at the casino tables downstairs loses to me in blackjack and walks away when I decline another round or a drink with her upstairs in the champagne room. I can see her coming a mile away. She is so tall and thin I know to stay away, though she does radiate something mysterious I am desirous of, but never mind that.

"Never mind that" is what saves Cohen from descending into 007 territory. In the next scene, Ian Fleming would have had Bond in the hot tub with that beautiful French agent, just before she attempted to drown him. But Cohen is no Bond, and his mission is not the stuff of Fleming—although it does sometimes sound like it:

I labeled the blank tapes Myanmar 1, 2, 3 and 4. The real deal look like unshot virgin tapes, and she steals the beautifully labeled blanks.

Sure, it's got all the elements of an overblown spy novel. That's why Cohen has a book proposal about to make the rounds with top agent David Kuhn, and why he's had dinner with Oliver Stone, and met with Band of Brothers writer Bruce C. McKenna. But the publishing, film and TV people haven't heard Cohen's best story yet.

*   *   *

I pay my bill, nodding to the Vietnamese men with the newspapers, and drive a few miles to an unremarkable ranch-style house on a quiet suburban street where Cohen grew up in the 1970s. His parents are dead, and the house has been home base since Cohen, 42, left Venice to care for his ailing father in 2001. Although we've met several times, I'm still surprised by the height (6 feet 5 inches) of the figure who opens the door and leans down for a hug. Dressed in jeans and an old French army shirt, dark wavy hair flowing to his shoulders, he resembles a rumpled Oscar Wilde. The rest of his clothes are strewn across an open suitcase on the floor of an otherwise empty room. Cohen's been back from Asia less than 48 hours, and still looks jet-lagged. "I'm broken," he says apologetically, giving me an ad hoc, distracted tour.

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