Act One: Great Britain
Putting Words in President Reagan’s Mouth
One of the most interesting things I did during my entire tour in London was writing a speech for President Reagan. The English-Speaking Union had requested that the embassy send an invitation to President Reagan to come over and address the English-Speaking Union in the famous old Guildhall on the fortieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan. We didn’t have much hope that he would accept if it didn’t fit his plans or if he didn’t already have a European trip planned, but we had to submit the request to the White House anyway. We suggested as an alternative that he might be willing to do a speech on video, which could then be played on a huge screen in the Guildhall. And lo and behold he agreed to do that. Well, who was going to write the speech? So they said, “Let Huffman do it. He’s a former professor of linguistics; he ought to be able to write a bang-up speech.” So I settled down to doing the research on the background of the Marshall Plan, and I must say I was learning a lot of new stuff. I think it’s an advantage when you’re learning new material because it’s fresh and exciting, whereas if I’d been a specialist in arms control in Europe and the Marshall Plan and so on, I’m not sure I could have brought the same spontaneity to the project. But when I learned that the United States had given over $13 billion, or 6 percent of our national budget, for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II, this impressed me as an event of unprecedented generosity in the history of nations.
An amusing anecdote while I was writing the speech: We had a dinner party one night with some embassy people and some of my contacts in the cultural community in attendance; the phone rang, and my wife said, “Frank, it’s for you; it’s the White House calling.” My guests were highly impressed.
“Oh, thanks. I’ll take it downstairs,” I said.
It turned out it was some young speechwriter in the bowels of the old Executive Office Building calling me to verify some of my figures and ask where I got them and so on, but of course I didn’t point that out to the dinner guests when I came back up. I simply said, “I took care of that. Sorry about the interruption.”
They sent us a copy of the video to hand over to the English-Speaking Union, and I must say it was an eerie experience to hear the president speaking my words. At that point I realized why Reagan was considered such a great communicator—he delivered the speech as if he were searching for the right terms and then he would come up, unfailingly, with my words, as if from the depths of his emotion.
Act Two: Burma
The Massacres of 8/8/88
By far the most traumatic experience of my tour in Burma involved the tragic events of August and September 1988, when massive pro-democracy demonstrations resulted in the massacre of several thousand Burmese citizens at the hands of the brutal military regime. Previous attempts to throw off the shackles of totalitarianism, usually led by students, had taken place in 1962, when Ne Win’s police killed several hundred students at the University of Rangoon and dynamited the historic Students’ Union Building, and again in 1974, when the regime shot down several hundred students who marched in support of a general strike, arrested thousands, closed down schools and universities, and declared martial law. In 1988, there had been no major uprisings for fourteen years, but astrologers were predicting that dire events would happen on the magical date of 8/8/88—the four eights of August 8, 1988.
On August 1, the All-Burma Students’ Democratic League called for a nationwide general strike on 8/8/88 to protest the appointment of Sein Lwin. This prompted Sein Lwin on August 3 to declare martial law. My family and I, along with the Air Force attaché and his wife, were scheduled to take a trip up-country to visit Mandalay and Pagan. My son David was visiting from Cornell, and we had reserved an entire train car from Burmese railways, along with a railways chef, which could be done for quite a reasonable price (all right, a ridiculously low price—I think it was on the order of $50). I don’t recall just why we decided to go ahead with it, given the precarious situation at the time, but I recall thinking that the problems were mainly in Rangoon, and it might even be a good idea to get my family out of town for a while. But when we arrived in Pagan we were advised in a phone call from the embassy that antigovernment demonstrations had broken out in twenty six cities around the country, and that we should make every effort to get back to Rangoon before August 8, as massive demonstrations were predicted. Just as we were preparing to leave the Thiripyitsaya Hotel in Pagan, the situation became even more macabre when our friends received a call to the effect that their only son had been killed in an automobile accident in Denver. I was standing beside the air attaché’s wife when her husband took that call; he turned to her and said, “Our son has been killed.” I caught her as she fainted and collapsed to the floor.
We left Pagan immediately by car to join up with our train car on the Mandalay to Rangoon line in Meiktila, only to find that the car had been held up in Mandalay. The regularly scheduled train was departing for Rangoon; the stationmaster refused to honor the tickets we had for the special car, so we bought new tickets for the trip to Rangoon, and managed to board the train as it was leaving. The trip to Rangoon seemed to last a lifetime, with my children sitting somberly and silently while the air attaché attempted to comfort his inconsolable wife. I think my twenty-one-year-old son, who had “gone native” on his first visit to a third world country, matured by about three years during the trip. When our train, barely avoiding tracks that were blown up shortly after we passed, finally reached Rangoon at 8:00 a.m. on 8/8/88, there was an eerie silence in the city, and we were relieved to see the black Chevy Suburban and the faithful Ye Myint waiting for us at the deserted station. Later that day, however, an estimated ten thousand people took to the streets in what was just the beginning of massive demonstrations that were to take place over the next few weeks. Government radio reported thirty-one killed and thirty-seven wounded in “restoring security.”
The next day, August 9, the army, acting under martial law, killed between forty and two hundred demonstrators (estimates varied wildly in those days) and arrested fifteen hundred. Estimates of the numbers of demonstrators that day ranged from twenty thousand to a hundred thousand. With Rangoon paralyzed by a general strike, Sein Lwin resigned on August 12 after eighteen days in power. In the following days, pro democracy demonstrations grew in both numbers and intensity, encouraged by the apparent reluctance of the military to intervene. Lawyers, writers, film actors, musicians, hospital workers, and even policemen joined the demonstrations. Years of pent-up rage, and rumors that military personnel were poisoning the water supply, led to violence in some parts of the city. Some soldiers discovered among the demonstrators were beheaded as spies by enraged civilians. On one occasion, an eighteen-year-old Marine guard from the U.S. embassy was stopped on the way home and forced to take photos of a beheading. U.S. Ambassador Burt Levin ordered embassy officers to stay away from the demonstrators, claiming that U.S. interests in Burma did not justify the death of one American.
Foreign journalists were not being allowed in by the regime; a lone Time photographer had made it in earlier but was arrested for photographing demonstrations at the Shwedagon Pagoda. As a result, as the embassy’s press attaché, I was being bombarded with calls from journalists representing AP, AFP, Reuters, Washington Post, Daily Telegraph, BBC, and others from Bangkok, Hong Kong, London, and even Sydney. They would typically ask, “What is your estimate of the number of demonstrators today?” I would look out my window and make a rough estimate of the numbers of demonstrators in Mahabandoola Square in front of the Embassy. On August 23, for example, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 demonstrators marched through downtown Rangoon between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., ending with speechmaking in front of the U.S. Embassy. Martial law was lifted on August 24, and army troops moved back from their positions in the center of the city. Estimates were that as many as one million people were involved in demonstrations in Rangoon, with similar numbers in the major cities of Mandalay, Taunggyi, and Moulmein.
By August 26, a general strike had crippled Rangoon. Government services broke down completely, and air and rail service halted. To add to the melee, the government inexplicably released 4,800 prisoners from Insein Prison, resulting in widespread looting and violence. As a result of the general anarchy and the uncertainty of continued supplies of fuel, food, and drinking water, the embassy, in consultation with the State Department, decided to evacuate U.S. dependents to Bangkok. Over one hundred U.S. family members, along with dependents from various other embassies, were evacuated by chartered Thai Airways flights on September 9 and 11. As all airport workers were on strike, a Marine guard commandeered an airport tractor to push the flight stairs up to the plane, damaging the plane slightly as a result of his inexperience. This was one of the rare times when a mob in front of the U.S. Embassy was not anti-American; in fact, when the ambassador’s car left the Embassy, the crowd would cheer him, chanting “We want democracy!” and “Freedom Now!”
The demonstrators congregated in front of the U.S. Embassy in the hope that it would provide them both publicity and some security. They were mistaken on both counts. On September 18, the military took over the government (overtly), forming the brutal State Law and Order Restoration Council, with the somehow appropriate acronym SLORC. The soldiers, who had been ordered not to fire on the demonstrators in the hope that they would vent their anger harmlessly, were now ordered to shoot to kill, and over the next week killed an estimated two thousand demonstrators in the process of “restoring peace and order.” More civilians were killed that day than were killed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing a year later, but the world paid little attention to Burma. Another embassy officer and I filmed the massacres from the roof of the Embassy, and our tapes, smuggled out in the diplomatic pouch, provided the first glimpses in the international media of the situation in Rangoon.
Influenced by the euphoria of the demonstrators during the massive pro-democracy demonstrations,journalists wrote that whatever the future held, Burma “could never go back to the status quo ante.”
They were wrong. In my opinion, two events precipitated the crackdown by the government: a group of demonstrators surprised and disarmed a group of soldiers on top of the bank building adjacent to the Embassy. The soldiers had orders not to shoot and had been drinking, which no doubt facilitated their capture. The demonstrators, enraged by rumors that soldiers had been poisoning the people’s water supply, were intent on killing their captives, but cooler heads persuaded the demonstrators to turn them over to their commanders. This humiliation, coupled with the fact that the demonstrators were for the first time marching on the Ministry of Defense, led to the crackdown. The generals no doubt reasoned that if they lost control of the situation, they would lose not only their jobs but their heads as well.
Act Four: France
The Wrong Interpretation
I once consulted an audiologist, who confirmed that I had incipient hearing loss. He said that experimental evidence showed that people’s brains are wired differently, so that some people process auditory signals much more slowly than others. My wife is a prime example of someone whose auditory processing is so efficient that she can do simultaneous interpretation between French, English, and Romanian. Shortly after we were married, I was showing slides of Thailand to her visiting parents, and she kept talking during my presentation.
Somewhat exasperated, I said, “Am I going to talk, or are you?” She said, “I’m interpreting.” Properly chastised, I was quite proud to have my own simultaneous interpreter. Over her career she has interpreted for seven heads of state, including U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, as well as the presidents of Romania, Moldova, and France.
While we were posted to Paris Sanda received a call from the Quai d’Orsay asking if she would be interested in accompanying President François Mitterrand to Bucharest as an interpreter, on what was to be the first visit of a Western head of state to Romania after the fall of Ceausescu. Sanda asked me whether I thought she should go and without thinking too much about the ramifications, I said, “Sure, why not? It would look good on your résumé.”
Once she got there, she had very little to do, as most educated Romanians speak French, and they all wanted to show off their French to the French president. About the only interpretation she had to do was when Madame Danielle Mitterrand visited a Romanian orphanage and asked a little girl what her name was and how old she was. Sanda and I calculated that she had earned something like $1,600 per word on the trip.
But when news of the trip got back to the embassy, all hell broke loose. I was summoned by the regional security officer, who said, “She did what? Don’t you realize that we can’t have the wife of an American officer working for the host government? Think of the security implications!”
But I couldn’t really understand their concern; it seemed to me that the French were the ones who should have been worried that their security had been breached by having the wife of an American officer on the inside, but they appeared blithely unconcerned. In fact, it occurred to me that we would do well to imitate the French style of presidential travel: the president and relevant staff just boarded the presidential plane and flew to Romania. What a contrast with travel by the U.S. president, who is routinely accompanied by hundreds of political acolytes and security types and an entire plane devoted solely to the press. When President Clinton attended APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1999, he took over a thousand people with him. With delegations from sixteen countries descending on a city with limited hotel space, the Americans had to lease cruise ships and moor them in the Auckland harbor to house the American delegation and entourage.
Act Five: Cambodia
How I Saved the Khmer Language
I was surprised to find that I was a bit of a celebrity in Phnom Penh because of my books on the Cambodian language, most of which had been pirated and were for sale in the New Market, with colorful covers in pink, mauve, or chartreuse. And while one of my duties as PAO was to support the idea of intellectual property
rights, the pirates obviously didn’t understand such a vague concept, since the pirated versions contained even
the Yale Press copyright page of the originals. My dictionary in particular provided me unique entrée, since
every government official had it on his desk. When I was introduced to the minister of culture, he actually
genuflected before me and said, “So you’re the Professor Huffman! You’ve saved our language.”
That was a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that my dictionary had provided an authority, right or
wrong, for the translation of myriad English documents concerning democracy and human rights into Khmer
during the UNTAC period. As a result of this notoriety, I was in some demand as a speaker (in Khmer) at such
venues as the Buddhist Institute; but my duties as PAO limited the time available for participation in various
events having to do with Cambodian culture. I was like a kid in a candy store with no money. I was
accustomed to teaching Americans about Cambodia, while my duty as a PAO was to tell Cambodians about
Act Seven: Chad
Chad is perhaps the poorest and most desolate country I have ever seen. I have lived and worked in such poor
countries as Laos, Burma, and Cambodia, but those countries, with their lush tropical vegetation and bamboo
houses, somehow don’t seem as desolate as the arid drought-stricken countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where
villages consist of mud huts, straggly herds of goats and cattle trying to find forage, while desertification
marches inexorably southward and encroaches on former agricultural lands. Chad has been in a state of almost
constant war since achieving its independence from France in 1960. In addition to poverty and corruption,
Chad, like the other sub-Saharan countries of Sudan, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania, suffers from the schism
between the predominantly Muslim, Arabic, pastoral nomads of the northern deserts and the predominantly
Christian, black African farmers of the agricultural south. During the colonial period, the French generally
favored the Christian south and groomed southern Christians as national leaders. But since independence in
the early sixties, in most of these countries the northern Arab Muslims have increasingly dominated politically
and economically at the expense of the black Christian south.
The political situation when I arrived in Chad was fairly quiet (except for a rebel guerrilla group in the
Tibesti Mountains in the north) but was considered rather “fluid” (translation: anything can happen). While
President Idriss Déby was saying all the right things about democracy, human rights, open markets, and social
programs, the cynical view was that his government was no more interested in the welfare of the people than
any previous government and was dedicated to enriching his cronies and the members of his own ethnic
group. Someone said it is rather a testimony to his skill that he has stayed in power so long (since 1990), as he
has had to balance the interests of the various tribal and ethnic groups that put him in power.
Meanwhile the great hope for Chad was the anticipated exploitation of major oil reserves in the south of
the country by an international consortium of companies led by Esso and Shell and the French conglomerate
Elf/Total/Fina. The World Bank was debating whether to endorse the deal, which would involve building a
pipeline across Cameroon to a seaport at Douala (since Chad is land-locked), and various environmental
groups were opposing the venture. Basically we supported it since it was the only obvious way to bring some
development and benefit to the six million inhabitants of one of the poorest countries in the world—but there
was considerable skepticism as to whether the revenues would ever trickle down to the people. As one
Chadian put it, sugar was cheap until the government started producing it through a sugar monopoly, so by
that reasoning the exploitation of the estimated $20 billion in oil reserves would simply cause the price of
gasoline to go up for the ordinary citizen. And it cannot be denied that wherever oil has been found in Africa,
it is an unmitigated disaster for the people—Nigeria would be Exhibit A.
The most pessimistic predictions turned out to be true. At one point, just as the deal seemed about to go through, and Déby could already taste the proceeds, the French consortium decided to back out of the deal.
Déby was so angry with the French that he declared the French ambassador persona non grata and organized
demonstrations against the French community. As the demonstrators marched through my section of town,
beating on tin pans and throwing rocks into foreign compounds, I opened the gate to my compound a crack to
see what was going on. Just at that moment a brick came hurtling through the opening in the gate, just missing
my head but hitting my gardener in the leg; he had to be taken to the hospital to treat the wound. The Chadian
demonstrators couldn’t distinguish French from Americans or any other Westerners; we all looked alike to
Another oil company replaced the French, and the World Bank eventually endorsed the deal when Déby
pledged that he would spend the first $25 million in revenues from the oil pipeline on health, education, and
welfare. When the ambassador, persuaded by the World Bank representative, announced in a country team
meeting his satisfaction with Déby’s pledge, the young political officer, who had been in Chad for several years
and was simultaneously political, economic, trade, and consular officer, said, “Boy, Mr. Ambassador, you’re
This was an incredibly brazen thing to say to an ambassador, and a more vindictive ambassador would
surely have reprimanded her, but she was right; as she predicted, Déby spent the money on military weapons
to maintain himself in power. The World Bank later withdrew its support for the pipeline out of frustration
with Déby’s obvious misuse of the proceeds, but the project has continued and is now in operation, without
perceptible benefit to the people