Q- Hello My Big Big Honey has just been translated into French, is that correct?
A- Yes, the French translation is titled, Bonjour Ma Grande Grande Cherie - Lettres d'Amour aux Filles de Bars de Bangkok et Interviews et Revelatrices. It's been translated into French by a man named Cyril Payen. The book is currently in a queue waiting to be published by White Lotus, and it will be distributed in Thailand and Indochina. We also hope to publish it in France and other French-speaking countries, and we hope to print it in German and Japanese too, maybe even Hebrew, the Scandinavian languages, Spanish, Russian and so on. We want every language to bask in the wisdom of Bangkok bar girls and their lovers.
Q- I'm told you are also working on a novel as well?
Yes, it's titled, Sheila Carfenders, and is fiction, a work of surreal literature that is based on political events in the Third World. I started it in India years ago. I'm about half way through it. Unfortunately, I never seem to find time to finish.
Q- But you recently finished another book, titled, Rituals and Revolutions: Tibet, Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka. Please tell us about it and some of the characters you write about?
A- Rituals and Revolutions is a non-fiction book, based on my work as a journalist in four very different regions - Tibet, Afghanistan, India, and Sri Lanka. It's about all the twisted, freaked out, animist, often psychotic, religious rituals I saw, as well as the political and vicious guerrilla wars and social revolutions I experienced. I hope that the reading is light enough, and vivid enough, that anyone can pick it up and gain something from it.
There is some weird stuff in it, like the vulture sky funeral I experienced during my first trip to Tibet when I lived in Lhasa for one month in 1984. Four dead people had their skulls smashed open, their brains were scooped out, and they were disemboweled. The undertaker chopped off the heads of the dead people, and grabbed the heads by the hair, and held the heads high in the air like in a Goya painting. It was horrific.
As for the characters, they are exclusive interviews with people in those regions. one is Gulbudin Hekmatyar, the mujahideen leader in Afghanistan who was backed by the CIA and, among many other things, was accused of killing a BBC journalist. When I spoke with Hekmatyar, he struck me as a surly, confident guy with a gallows humor, and an aura of danger and confidence. I found similar traits in Sant Bhindranwale, the former Sikh leader in Punjab who took over the Golden Temple, refused to leave, filled it with weapons and eventually inspired then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to send in the Indian Army to try to kill him and his followers. Bhindranwale had the same aura as Hekmatyar: an arrogant leader who feels so cool within his own clan that he appears not to need the outside world.
Both professed extreme religious views: Bhindranwale put forth a line of fundamentalist Sikh values; Hekmatyar, ancient Islamic teachings and traditions. Both were seen by the outside world and the governments they were fighting as complete terrorists and gangsters disguised as religious zealots. Both were able to wreak havoc on their societies. Both were supported at one time by people who hoped to use them - Bhindranwale by Indira Gandhi, Hekmatyar by the Americans. But they both became Frankensteins who were created, and who broke away, and could no longer be controlled. And they knew it. They both had to be hunted down. Bhindranwale was shot, and Hekmatyar is still out there.
In Sri Lanka, I interviewed Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE, in a safe house bunker in Jaffna while the Indian Army was invading and threatening to bomb him out of existence. Short and stubby, he didn't seem to fit the mold of a guerrilla leader. He was less charismatic than I thought he would be, more of a functional sort, pumping out his demands, beliefs, and hopes for his ultimate dream for a one-party Marxist state.
In the book, there are also revolutions in people's heads. For instance, the psychiatric revolution of the Sadhus, India's Hindu holy men. Their revolution is inside their head, as a result of smoking huge quantities of hashish non-stop in big clay chillums, to completely destroy and obliterate the normal world so they can transcend and unite with Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. (more information about the book, Rituals and Revolutions, can be obtained by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or at Richard Ehrlich's home page: http://members.tripod.com/~ehrlich where his first book, Hello My Big Big Honey, is also available along with some of his Asia news stories.)
Q- Would you name some of the journalists who have been sources of inspriration for you, and that you admire?
A- One of my earliest inspirations was James Campbell, a British journalist. He wrote about his career in India and it was fascinating. He had a very conversational style. Campbell opened my imagination up to the whole idea of being a reporter in India and that part of the world, and how wild and wonderful it could be.
As for my own writing style, especially while writing Hello My Big Big Honey, I was influenced by Studs Terkel. What I like about his writing is his heavy reliance on quotes. He would quote verbatim, seemingly endlessly. Terkel himself would step back, and stay out of the actual conversation, and allow the person to speak, and Terkel would capture all the nuances of their language, the pauses, the cadence. You could hear people speaking instead of just having short, little sound-bites or quotes taken out of context.
I like to write my news stories with a lot of quotes. I stand back, because the reader wants to hear people speak for themselves. Readers don't want a journalist to filter these things or paraphrase the quotes down into mush. If a person has something to say, they can speak directly to the reader. The journalist then enters in, and puts things in context.
I must also mention as an inspiration, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He revealed what journalism could be, and how unusual subjects could also be reported. He lifted off any mental censorship writers might impose on themselves. As William Burroughs said, "All things are permitted."
One of my first influences when I finally became a foreign correspondent back in 1978, was when I joined United Press International, UPI, in Hong Kong. The UPI editor for Asia and the Pacific was a man named Michael Keats. This guy is brilliant. He is a hard-drinking carousing type of guy, an Australian, who used to be a car racer, and he carried that combative aggression into his work.
He would lean over my shoulder as I was typing out a story and bellow, "What do you mean, 'the building caught on fire and fifteen people were killed?' I don't want to see 'the building caught on a fire.' I want to see, 'Flames swept through the building charring it to rubble, trapping people and burning fifteen of them to death'." And then he would let out a bellowing laugh. And you knew in an instant the difference between active writing with active verbs, and passive writing with passive verbs. And his bellowing laughter and support helped my actual word-by-word writing.
And when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Keats was generous enough to send me to be the UPI staff correspondent to be based in New Delhi to cover Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. It was my first major break in life. Then, when I first went into Afghanistan in 1980 for UPI, Keats gave me a lot of wild and profound advice on the ins and outs of life as a war correspondent. Today he's based in Washington DC, and has a senior position with Inter Press Service.
Another great inspiration in those days was Paul Vogle who had worked for UPI in Saigon. He came to Hong Kong to work the night shift while I was there. Vogle is very cool, very low-key, and the opposite of Keats. He gave me quiet advice about being in the field, using anecdotes about his time in Vietnam. He had a very subtle approach to things.
Alan Dawson, who was UPI Saigon and UPI Bangkok, and now with the Bangkok Post, is another big inspiration. Dawson can go anywhere, anytime, hit the ground, write a story and it will be a fantastic piece. He is a very pithy guy, who is excellent in one-to-one debates when somebody might be challenging him directly. His ability to stand his ground, use the facts, and his vast wisdom, especially on Vietnam, and counter-punch in a debate anyone he is interviewing, or anyone he is just discussing things with, is fascinating. It's an example of how information is power.
Q- How have you and your work been influenced by Internet?
A- I love Internet. I'm addicted to words. You can go on-line and you can get text on anything, things you can't even imagine. With the push of a button, you not only have access to people but to their beliefs and ideas, and you also have the verbatim text which you can download into your computer and then quote, read, evaluate or delete. So it's an ability to be bombarded by text from all over the world on every subject possible.
The other thing that is fascinating about Internet is e-mail. I can write a story and, with the push of a button, e-mail it to my foreign editors at my newspaper, The Washington Times. And if they have a question they can e-mail me back, whether I'm in Phnom Penh or Jakarta, or wherever. And nowadays, I just can walk down the street and go into a cyber cafe, and immediately file.
In the bad old days of typewriters, there were telex machines and you would you have to go late at night to a telex office in New Delhi, or Kabul, or Colombo, and punch out a long tape with little holes, and pump the tape through a telex machine. One story of about a thousand words could take half-an-hour just to transmit by telex. Then came fax which was fantastic. And now Internet which wipes all of that out.
A couple of years ago, I suggested to UPI when they were going bankrupt and collapsing, that they should switch to e-mail. UPI should use e-mail, instead of paying millions of dollars for dedicated transmission lines, where reporters are sending their stories back to UPI-Washington over dedicated lines which cost a fortune. And use e-mail instead of UPI transmitting its news wire to newspaper clients on dedicated lines and satellite dishes, which also costs a fortune. Why don't they just stop all that, and have the reporters e-mail their stories back to Washington, virtually for free? Then UPI could e-mail the newswire to subscribers and newspapers all over the world, also virtually for free.
Internet is important in other ways as well. For example, I'm also the Asia correspondent for an Internet magazine called City Times which you can't buy on the newsstands, but it's on-line, and it's excellent. Internet is the future. Anyone who is addicted to words can get all the words they need. Photographers can transmit their photos by e-mail too, scanning them in using PhotoShop and e-mailing them to newspapers and magazines all over the world.
Q- Some say that the amount of information available on Internet is mind-boggling, that there is too much information out there. Is there?
A- I hope it is mind-boggling. I hope it is too much. Because what is the opposite? That minds won't be boggled? Our minds would essentially then be dead and mundane. The alternative is that there would not be enough information. And then we have information famine, information starvation. People would be emaciated from a lack of information.
Q- What holy grails are you still chasing in terms of people and places?
A- My goal is to travel farther and farther and farther away. In today's world that means farther off the roads, basically hiking into the mountains. I recently did a one-week trek among the opium tribes of northern Laos, up in the mountains where China, Laos, and Burma meet. I trekked from the northern Lao border with China down to the Laotian-Thai border. Three days trekking on foot through the mountains plus another three days by riverboat on the Nam Tha River. Going farther and farther away to get news seems to be one of the most interesting things you can do these days.
As for people to interview, I like to talk to anyone, and it doesn't matter if they are famous or not. Celebrated people often have the least to say. First of all, they are usually so alienated from the real world, because they are on a lofty perch, that what they are saying can be quite mindless. They are often so terrified of being quoted, or appearing revealed, that they hedge themselves. The most interesting people are the people at the bottom of society. They have no pretense, no spin doctors, and they are usually telling you the way it really is.
There are many many things I want to do, and stories I want to report in Asia. But I don't feel like I'm in a rush, or that I have to hurry. Because you either live long enough to do everything you want to do, and that is wonderful, or you die, and because you are dead, you don't really care. So you win either way.
Q- If you were sitting on a trans-Pacific flight from Bangkok to San Francisco, and you could sit beside any famous person, living or dead, who would it be?
A- Well if it's a long flight, it would have to be someone like Madonna. Especially if I'm sitting in the next seat. In addition to her being Madonna the robo-babe, I like her because she's pushed the envelope of free speech. Her book, Sex, where's she's naked with animals and lesbians, on one level is of course a porno book. But on another level it's opening up what free speech and expression are all about. And because she's Madonna, and because it's about sex, it's sensational and it gets that message of free speech to the widest possible audience. Also in her music, she has tackled everything from Catholicism to teenage pregnancy to drug use to romance, virginity and despair.
On an airplane journey that long, you'd definitely want someone entertaining like Hunter S.Thompson or William Burroughs. Not someone dour or miserable like, say, Fidel Castro. I've seen Castro speak in New Delhi, the guy stands up, and for hours he drones on about his economic policies.
I would prefer to sit next to someone who is an intellectual powerhouse of the written word. Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan would also be cool. Or Mick Jagger and Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones. Or Suharto, simply to find out the real story of his downfall.
Q- You've spent a lot of your recent time reporting from Cambodia and Indonesia. What are your thoughts on both countries?
A- Cambodia is doomed, and of course Indonesia is doomed. All the money is being drained out of Asia, so no matter who takes over these countries, and no matter what their best intentions are, in many ways it's too late. Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh are both trying to run Cambodia, but at the top, whatever corrupt, or dictatorial, or brutal regime does win the election will be bad news for Cambodia. Because for the Cambodia out in the countryside, even in the best of times, their lives are still going to be wretched. Ravaged by the American bombardment, ravaged by communism, and just ravaged by its own unfortunate history and position in South-East Asia, surrounded by voracious neighbors, it is basically flat on its back, writhing in pain at the mercy of Cambodian and foreign carpetbaggers who are raping, pillaging and plundering. There is very little the average Cambodian can do about it.
In Indonesia, even with Suharto gone, and his kids allegedly banking up to US$40 billion of that country's wealth, the place has been turned into such a house of cards with foreign and domestic loans that now as it topples there are simply too many people, and not enough money. And now with Japan going into a recession, Tokyo is going to be cutting back business investments to this region, and Tokyo is also going to be cutting off Japanese aid to South-East Asia. Japan was one of this region's biggest aid donors. So there is going to be a complete financial disaster. And China's eventual devaluation of the yuan currency will strike another hammerblow, which is still yet to come.
Putting Suharto's head, and those of his all children, on a spike is not going to solve the problem. Indonesians are not going to be getting the US$40 billion back. In many cases those contracts, and investments and profits were legal. The only other alternative people were saying was to nationalize all the holdings of Suharto and his kids. But then the foreign investors would totally freak out and flee Indonesia because joint-ventures would be dragged into that nationalization as well. They are doomed countries. It's tragic, it's sad.
Q- Any solutions to this seemingly endless spiral of despair that South-East Asia is going through?
A- As life teaches, there is no bottom. You can simply walk through the streets of India and see that when you fall, you can fall to the very end. At the bottom of the pits are lepers and multiple amputees and cannibals, the whole ravages of society. There is no guarantee of a solution. Now we are seeing the economic ravages all across Asia. Next will be the political ravages, which we are already beginning to see. What does that lead to? Not only riots, as we've already gotten, and coups which we've already had, but then territorial wars within countries, and civil wars as they break up, and then wars among neighbors as they fight and squabble for food, real estate, shipping rights, oil zones etc. And once you get into country-to-country wars, you can escalate quickly to regional wars which now can all be topped off for dessert by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. So we are looking at the apocalypse. And all you can say is, stay tuned.
Q- What's your take on Thailand, your home base?
A- Thailand has advantages in several ways. It is more of a homogeneous society, it is not threatened by major racial divisions like the racism that swept Indonesia. It's not shrugging off a Marxist past and trying to form a market economy like Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. It's not under a military regime still struggling to achieve democracy like Burma. So in many ways Thailand is enjoying one of the most coveted positions in South-East Asia. Thais have the ability to feed themselves with rice and fishing. They are also in a good hub position, even though South-East Asia is going down the tubes. Whatever investment or infrastructure projects come through here, Thailand is still sitting pretty in mainland South-East Asia as a hub with a large domestic population. Anybody manufacturing or selling things can sell for export, or to the Thai population.
However, there is a vast gap between the very rich and poor. They have an unfortunate education system which does not stress the English language, which keeps them, to a large extent, out of the information age and Internet. This makes it difficult for foreign companies to set up here and hire Thai talent. Thailand has a lot of problems to go through.
The average Thai also has to face an increasing crippling disaster in terms of AIDS which continues to cut a large swath through Thai society, even though Thailand gets high marks from UN and others for tackling the AIDS problem. The problem is still quite widespread, and it is a time bomb that has yet to fully explode, with potentially devastating effects. Thailand has many advantages that other South-East Asian countries don't have, but Thailand is on several vulnerable stilts as it attempts to walk out of its present economic plight.
Q- Why do you enjoy journalism so much, why is it so much fun?
A- The most profound thing in journalism is that the truth will set people free. So, in an altruistic sense, by reporting to the best of your ability on a complicated subject, or a political event riddled with lies and propaganda and indoctrination, by hacking through all that, and by pulling up what you believe to be the most truthful aspects of it, and having people on record as to what they are saying or doing, this helps to set people free, whether it's in the countries being reported on, or overseas in countries that have an interest in this region. Theoretically, you are helping to bring world peace, an end to starvation, better human rights, and harmony. But in many cases that's a delusion, because a journalist writes, it's printed, the story is read, but the page is then turned, and often no one comes to the rescue. But at least you have the motive, the possibility that you might be helping people who are suffering.
Personally, I'm fascinated by the word. I like the fact that the lead sentence of the Bible is, "In the beginning was the word." I find that quite interesting. That tells you that the word can be the source of everything. It's certainly the source of most people's private thinking. It's obviously the source of much of our communication because what we are discussing is in words. "In the beginning was the word," so everything can come out of the word. As one great author said, "Words are the most powerful drug in the world." That's also very fascinating because normally you wouldn't think of words as a drug. Yet when someone stands up to give a speech, or a proclamation, or a declaration, it inspires millions of people to give up their lives, to kill, to do all kinds of things.
So the word seems to have the most power. That's attractive. And if you can work with words you are working with a power more influential and more valuable than working in gold and making jewelry, or working in uranium and making nuclear bombs, or working with DNA and shaping mutant life forms. As a humble wordsmith you are at least working with something that has incredible power. Whether you have the capability of succeeding is of course part of the game.
And being a foreign correspondent enables you to not only to engage in words, but also experience the great historical events and dramas of the latter half of the twentieth century. The wars, and revolutions, and coups, and earthquakes, and great leaders, and criminals, and disasters. You can enter into events, and be part of them. There is nothing more thrilling than experiencing these events. It is one thing to sit back and read about them and understand, but it's quite another to experience. There is a vast difference between understanding the world, and experiencing the world.
Q- How do you keep your objectivity when the story you are covering may be tugging at your heart strings?
A- Everyone has their own technique for maintaining objectivity in an emotional crisis kind of a story where you would naturally be drawn in. One of the easiest, and most portable ways to remain objective is to simply view the people and their statements - that you might be drawn into - as completely the opposite. If you are talking to someone, and for some reason you love their cause, or you love that person, or you love what they are doing, then in your mind, look at them as the complete opposite. Imagine that perhaps these are people that you would normally instinctively hate, or be against, or be alienated from. Then question them, in an adversarial fashion. Because a journalist must always take an adversarial relationship with whoever they are interviewing, and whatever story it is.
If you find yourself being sucked in, just switch the context and take the opposite view. Say to yourself, "Yes this may is true, and these people may be wonderful, but what if these guys were actually lying? What if they are actually impostors? What if they are actually trying to trick everyone?" Then the questions you would ask such people will come to mind, and you will be able to objectively go back through their stories, and what they are doing, and their motives, and the possible consequences.
And of course never take sides, no matter how attracted you might be, because ten years later you don't want to pick up a paper and find the people you thought were so good and so wonderful, and that you had a bias towards, turned out to be secretly perpetrating atrocities. In many cases, when the revolutionary comes to power, he becomes a pig. You have to be careful of that. No matter how great it may sound when these people are rising up, they may not sound so great ten to twenty years down the road.
A journalist never knows if the person he or she is interviewing is telling the truth or not. You would need a jury, lawyers, cross-examination, and evidence for that. We are supposed to see people as innocent until proven guilty, but such a trial is more than a journalist can do in an interview. So a journalist should assume that everybody they are talking to is a potential liar, and that they are potentially trying to trick you, or say something for their own purposes. That is the purpose of the interview: to question their answers, and question the answers to their answers.
Q- Do you think your stories have changed things or changed the world in some small way?
A- In Sri Lanka, I quoted Foreign and Interior Ministry officials who were talking about torture and the psychological operations they were running against Tamil guerrillas. I had a Sri Lankan official, on the record, who explained "Of course we torture Tamils, how can you not? Here's a person who comes in, and you know that this guy has planted a bomb on a railroad track or on a highway, so what are you going to do? Stroke his head and give him a cup of tea? Of course you are going to torture him to save human lives." He even told Amnesty International this and tried to explain his perspective.
When I quoted this guy, the Sri Lankan government went right through the roof and said how dare I quote, and name, this official. But as I explained to them later, the Foreign Ministry invited me in, and set the whole thing up, because of my requests to talk to someone about the allegations of torture. The fact that these allegations were finally brought one step closer to the light through my news stories may have helped human rights.
Other possible influence of my stories: I've interviewed the Dalai Lama three times, about the plight of Tibetans in his homeland. And we see, as he becomes more famous, more people know about the Tibetan cause. So perhaps by focusing the media spotlight on relatively obscure parts of the world, such as Tibet or Sri Lanka or now Cambodia and Indonesia, the world gets a greater understanding and doesn't see these countries in black and white, with good guys and bad guys, but instead sees the complicated subtleties and contradictions and hypocrisies woven through these places. Asia doesn't need simplistic answers, such as dumping money or bombs on their heads, to help these places.
Readers and book distributors can get more
information, or buy Rituals and Revolutions, by emailing
Richard Ehrlich at
or visiting his website at
Thailand phone (662) 286 2434