Chiang Mai – Saturday, Feb. 22, 10 a.m. local time (10:00 p.m. EST on Friday, Feb. 21)
Ko awoke to one of Keng’s guards yelling, “Out!” He blinked and his body tensed up. Two men were waving semiautomatic pistols at him, signaling to leave Keng’s “guest house.” Ko jumped to his feet and followed the first man out the side door and along Charoen Rajd Road. The other guard followed.
Sweating in the mid-morning sun, Ko contemplated an escape, but decided against it. Keng’s hulking men might shoot him. The lead man took the foot bridge west over the Ping into the main part of town. Half way across, Ko looked back. Cafés, galleries and trees lined the riverbank behind him. A delivery truck had parked along the side of one of the restaurants, and men were unloading crates.
Once on the other side, they pushed through the crowds in the fruit market to Ratchawong Road, which ran north. Double-parked in a side alley, a car awaited them. They took the 20-minute ride to Huay Tung Tao Lake at the foot of Doi Suthep, where the driver dropped them off at the main parking lot for the mountain preserve. The shorter of the two guards pointed to a structure in the distance, and Ko went off alone.
Ko had heard that more and more tourists had discovered the lake, a reservoir built to ensure Chiang Mai’s water supply, but he saw mostly locals, fishing and biking. He approached a row of floating bamboo platforms with open sides and thatched roofs, which were set up for lounging. He ambled toward the one at the far end. A faded sign indicated the “Circle Trail,” where one could take a shower under a waterfall. Technically correct, he knew. But you’d best bring a machete and spider repellent. Did the tourists know about the leeches? Did Keng meet people here often?
Inside the floating bungalow, Ko sat at the table. Its pink tablecloth flapped in the breeze. A wave of vertigo came and went as the strange body chemistry of jet lag still coursed through his veins. The shirt and pants that Keng had furnished him were clean but ill-fitting, and he was exhausted. Though he remained physically unharmed, he had slept poorly for the two nights that Keng had him holed up. He had asked himself endless questions. What had people found out about Nou’s death? Since when have I been in the dark? What pieces is Keng leaving out? Why didn’t he tell me? Ko tapped his fingers on his knees.
Hearing voices and footfall, Ko looked up. Keng was walking toward him followed by three waitresses carrying platters of food and beer. Another two men in training pants and track jackets followed.
“Cousin!” Keng announced when he got down to the platform. “Glad you found it,” he said, patting Ko on the back.
“Yes,” Ko said. “Your men brought me here.”
“Let’s eat,” Keng said, motioning for the women to place everything on the table.
Ko’s eyes lit up. Several whole fried fish on a bed of greens looked up at him. The aroma of garlic and spices made Ko’s mouth water. The women also served spicy pork with basil, catfish salad, water mimosa with red chili peppers in oyster sauce, and different kinds of rice—plain white, blue and sticky.
“You are hungry?” Keng asked.
“Some of our childhood favorites. I am humbled,” Ko said, scrambling to comprehend his cousin’s mercurial ways. Why was Keng being gracious?
“Nothing less for my good cousin,” Keng said, sitting down and telling the women to serve the food and pour the beer. “While you have been enjoying my guest house, I have been in touch with my CIA facilitator at the Bank.”
Ko’s mouth went dry. “What ‘facilitator’?”
“You didn’t think I was operating in a vacuum, did you? The facilitator has been watching over your shoulder.”
“No. I mean, I don’t know,” Ko said. “Are you talking about Jesse?”
“No!” Keng laughed, as one of the women placed the plates down. “Jesse, our old friend, is an entrepreneur. In his business, he knows how to make deals with the CIA, and he has coordinated some of our purchases, but,” he said, pausing and leaning back, spreading his arms upward. “No. He is not the facilitator. We have high-level support. High-level. The important thing now is that the facilitator has conveyed that you are in the clear.”
“That’s a relief,” Ko said, looking askance. What was Keng talking about? How could Keng doubt me? We are family!
“Let us drink to victory!” Keng said.
“To victory!” Ko said, affecting his best poker face.
Keng resumed the conversation. “One cannot be too careful.”
“Are you saying the CIA is assisting you, and they have someone at the Bank?” asked Ko, too upset to eat.
“Sometimes you are like the son, and I the father,” Keng said. A stilted laugh emerged as he chewed a piece of catfish with his mouth open. “All that university has expanded your mind here, and shrunk it there,” he went on, pointing to his skull.
Ko looked at the floor, not out of deference, but because he was afraid Keng would read the disgust in his eyes. Now I see. It is you who is betraying me. What facilitator?
“Of course, I have been dealing with the CIA,” Keng continued. “How else would all of this planning, this groundwork, have been possible? What did you think?”
“I thought we agreed to keep the circle tight. Bring the one hacker into the fold, that’s it. I thought we were arming our brothers and sisters to the north so they can free themselves of Burmese shackles,” he said, more loudly than he had ever dared to speak to Keng. “And I thought we were striving for the full implementation of the Panglong Agreement, after more than 70 years of waiting!”
“Ahh, Cousin Ko! That is important, yes. But we can’t bring back the past. We must adapt. We have accomplished feats others called impossible—unifying the militias in Shan and Kachin states, halting the ‘armed conflicts,’ ‘ethnic clashes,’ and ‘skirmishes.’ Next we will take back the rights to our timberlands, pipelines and mines—the gold, iron, jade, saphires and rubies! But to do this, we had to embrace modifications.”
Ko frowned at him. “Are we no longer talking about secession?”
“Something even better! The NNT will be an autonomous region under the umbrella of Thailand! Did you ever imagine that, Cousin Ko!? We will be one, all the way from the peak of Hkakabo Razi southward across the historic Burma Road, all along the Chinese border, past Chiang Rai and down the Mekong.”
“Rearrangement. Let us call it ‘inclusion’.”
Ko stared at Keng for a moment before speaking. “You are a powerful leader, Cousin. You have always—.”
Keng cut him off. “That’s right, I am a powerful leader!” he bellowed. “But I could not bring these people together all by myself!”
“I thought you—.”
“Money and arms,” Keng interrupted. “With the money, I pacify the war lords and militia leaders. And with the arms, I secure the territory. Both of these things have been pouring in here thanks to the Americans—and your assistance at the Bank.”
“My assistance?” Ko said. His mind reeled. “It seems I played a smaller role than I thought. You said yourself that someone was watching over my shoulder.”
“Let us say you were partners. The facilitator couldn’t have done it without you, my dear cousin. You are the economist. You two needed each other.”
“But you have been keeping secrets from me all these years.”
“How else could I succeed?”
“Why tell me now?” asked Ko, reminded of the fine distinction between freedom fighter and terrorist, between visionary and lunatic.
“It is time. You will have an important place in the new government.”
“Me? Is this why Channarong is dead? Did you silence him?”
“Cousin Ko, that is a serious accusation. It’s interesting that you thought I might organize such a thing. But you would be mistaken. And if I didn’t respect you greatly, I wouldn’t tolerate your wicked tongue.”
“Then who did it?”
“He was weak. He took care of himself. That is all.” Keng waved his hand, as if swatting a fly.
Ko flinched. What was Keng really saying? “You really think this is possible? This inclusion?”
“Why not? Do you want to count beans in that small office in Washington forever?” Keng sneered.
“I don’t know,” said Ko, as neutrally as possible.
“Look at Crimea! Russia took it back! Nobody did anything.”
Ko stared at the pork. His food was getting cold. Keng was out of his league, the plan outlandish.
“Cousin Ko. Tell me your concerns!” Keng said, continuing to eat heartily.
“Keng, I don’t know.”
“I want to know your advice.”
“Forgive me, Keng, but I doubt you want my advice.”
“If you see a problem, you must tell me now,” insisted Keng, leaning forward on the table. “Your analysis is of great value.”
Ko felt trapped between two equally bad options. Should I risk Keng’s wrath by telling him what I think, or risk the whole operation because I don’t, he wondered. “Alright,” Ko said.
“Autonomy, or even secession, is not the same as adding territory to Thailand. Other countries will oppose this—especially the military in Myanmar.”
“Ackh,” Keng scoffed. “The military in Myanmar is a paper tiger! The generals try to look strong, but they’re no match for the NNT. Besides, the Rohingya crisis down in Rakhine is like a stone around the neck of a dying man. Our operation will be a blow to the central government in Naypyidaw, but there is nothing they can do. They will be forced to accept it.”
“You can’t say the same about China. Don’t you think China will defend its pipeline? After all, it runs from Kyaukphyu on the coast all the way past Mandalay and across the mountains to Kunming—and you know they need that shortcut for their Saudi oil. They'll fight to avoid the Straits of Malacca! And what about Chinese hopes for the Myitsone Dam, which is supposed to power Yunnan Province? The plan has been delayed, but I don't believe the Chinese leadership has given up on that. Or what about the railway that will bring Chinese passengers from the western provinces all the way to the Bay of Bengal? Some of the warlords are in the pockets of the Chinese. These people benefit from the current anarchy. Face it, China has been quietly planting seeds throughout Myanmar. They are not going to walk away.”
Keng’s eyes flashed. “Beijing will not be pleased. But they will not stop us either. They are distracted—protests in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, incidents in the South China Sea, the nuclear challenge of North Korea. And this Silk Road initiative! What conceit! Sure, they try to buy off the local warlords, but these men are smart enough to play both sides. The Chinese are spreading themselves thinner and thinner. Besides, they underestimate us. The Chinese have left their precious pipeline vulnerable. With the arms and equipment we now have distributed—along the borders and at strategic locations—the Chinese must agree to our terms or risk the entire thing—which they will not do.”
“And what will those terms be?”
“A handsome payment. The pipeline, the power plants, the railroad, the dam, the river—the Chinese are welcome to use them all. But now they are our—what do they call it?—cash cows.”
“Who will be running all this?”
“Me, of course! I will be Governor.”
Ko was speechless.
“I can see you are contemplating the future, Cousin Ko,” Keng said. “Let me repeat that I will need you here at home.”
“You don’t need me anymore, Keng.”
“But I do! You are my right-hand man. You will have a prominent role. Vice Governor, State Finance Minister, Special Adviser, whatever you choose. When I get to the national level, I will need you close by my side.”
“You really believe this can happen—an expanded Thailand? With such glory for the New Northern Territories?”
“It is happening already,” Keng said. “The factions are committed—they are fed up with decades of war and Chinese meddling. Plans are in place—border patrol and security for the pipeline already exist; arms and tanks are in position; hackers, cyberexperts are online. There will be guards along the rivers—all the way from the Chindwin and Irawaddy to the Mekong. The police, media, and transport hubs, gasoline, food and water—we have plans to secure them all. We will even distribute baht and assist the return of our refugees from China. And don’t forget, we have the support of our facilitator. The final phase is imminent.”
“Your plans are thorough. Yet, what about Bangkok? What if the leadership changes?”
“It will. One must expect that. But I have contacts all around, and no matter who is in power, this plan is a plus for Thailand. The NNT will declare itself a part of Thailand, and what’s a good neighbor to do? Bangkok will gain financially and geostrategically. They will accept the proposal as a way to lessen tensions. Done!”
“With all due respect, Keng, what happens when people find out about the CIA involvement?”
“They won’t, but even if they did. Nothing,” he said, shrugging. “The US and Thailand are great allies. China, the UK, France, Russia, even Ukraine all know that—which is why they desperately chase weapons contracts here to push the Americans out. Thailand already purchases millions in arms and military equipment from US sources each year. There are joint military operations. Look, ever since the OSS worked with us during World War II, we have found common ground with the Americans. You know Thailand was a staging area for the Americans during the Vietnam War. This is nothing new.”
“The other powers might care if they find out the CIA has been using the World Bank like an ATM,” he said.
“No one will. The Facilitator has taken care of that. We make it look like we finance our operation with the drug trade. No one would doubt it. Now, eat, cousin, eat!”
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