DEATH BY BUDDHA – Murder of An Idealist…or a Scoundrel ?

| July 23, 2012 | Comments (0)

You’ve heard the expression – “too smart for his own good”? Someone who is too clever by half, brighter than the rest of the pack, the kid in the class who says he never studies, but makes you look like an idiot even though you stayed up all night doing your homework.

Substitute “handsome” for “smart” and you had Philippe Lauzin who was too handsome for his own good. Philippe was french-canadian and a James Bond look-alike, Sean Connery at his youthful best.

One day back in the 80’s in Rangoon, Burma, Philippe came into my office with a serious expression on his face. Settling into the chair in front of me, he leaned forward and lowered his voice, practically whispering as though state secrets were involved, and asked, “You speak Burmese and know the locals well. Tell me, what do these people mean when they shout ‘Bon Bon!” at me ? Are they asking for candy ? Do they want a bon-bon ? Are they insulting me with some vile slang reserved for round-eye foreigners ?”

Philippe’s English was shakey and his Burmese non-existent. How could I possibly know what was being said when  his francophone ears processed a Burmese word. It could mean anything under the sun, I told him. I suggested the best way to find out was for me to accompany him somewhere and hear for myself what this mysterious Bon-Bon was all about. I asked him where he had heard  the word and he said “Everywhere!” so the following day we went to the market together.

No sooner had we plunged into the rows of stalls than  “Bon-Bon” filled the air. Actually the sound was more like “Bond-Bond.” I stood and listened as assorted market vendors and customers  chanted, “Bond-Bond.” Not really sure what I was hearing, I asked a young fruit peddler what he was saying. He explained to me in Burmese that Philippe looked just like Sean Connery of James Bond fame and had therefore earned the nickname James Bond. Bond for short, or in the Burmese diminutive with their proclivity for word repetition, “Bond-Bond.” The mystery solved, I explained to Philippe, what it was all about. Almost predictably it seemed, he registered a self-satisfied, slightly bored half-smile, as if to say “It doesn’t really surprise me.” Being homely and plain myself, I realized for the first time that there was a whole other world out there, an exclusive club of beautiful, charming people who were constantly the target of honeyed slings and arrows. For these chosen people, being admired and oogled at was run-of-the-mill, even tiresome and perhaps  offensive, if Philippe’s reaction was any indication.

And so it was with Philippe. He was a “golden boy” who got everything he wanted without even asking. He was the toast of Rangoon, the darling of the expat international  “development set”, that collection of overpaid , “do-gooder” souls  who carry United Nations laissez-passers and U.S Embassy diplomatic passports,  the New Wave, the Non-Colonialists who had succeeded the imperial  presence, now long gone, but  remembered bitterly and fondly by those who had felt its hand.

Because I was one of the few franco-phones in the city, Philippe cultivated my company, but only in the daytime. We often lunched together at his house where he plied me with choice wines and excellent cuisine. His table was always set with fresh linen napkins and old silver, polished to perfection. Being a loose-tongued chatterbox who had never learned to keep a secret,  as I nattered on about everything under the sun during these long lunches, I came to realize that Philippe was pumping me ever so gently, but nonetheless persistently, for information; tidbits about our colleagues, their habits, what they did, where they went, who was sleeping with whom. Utterly uninterested in the foreign community and their carryings-on – I hated the Hash House Harriers, that supremely neo-colonial running club that drank heavily, made lots of noise and splashed through farmers’ fields destroying their tender, newly planted rice crops on their inane dashes to be first back at the club house to get soused – I had little to offer Philippe in  the way of juicy gossip.

Quite the contrary, I was intent on immersing myself in the local culture and language – after all, why spent one’s working life in exotic lands  if you didn’t  learn the local  language and  rub elbows with the  natives ? What was more exciting and rewarding, I would ask my culturally cautious  white colleagues, than learning a strange alphabet and suddenly having street signs and the lettering on shop windows come alive with meaning.  To me, it was like a blind man gaining sight. When it came down to it, wasn’t that the main reason one went to these far away places and risked malaria and constant intestinal disorder and  host of other maladies; to sample the strange and wonderful things that a night in the native quarter of Rangoon would offer ? To stroll the Mandalay  temple fairs in deliciously chill late October after the monsoon had left the land fresh and verdant,  thrilling to the throb of “sine wine” drums and  tinkling temple bells, the air scented with pagoda incense and spicey Burmese food ? Most Americans preferred to be closeted in the familiar confines of their American Club, insulating themselves from any local influences, glued to television watching American football and violent blockbuster films as they fed their faces with pepsi-cola and burgers.

As our marathon of two-hour lunches in Philippe’s villa became a weekly tradition, I sensed, in spite of his stack of invitations to every sought after event imaginable, that my handsome co-worker was bored and lonely. Eschewing female company and, like me,  only occasionally appearing at expatriate social events, he seemed to disappear in the evenings.

One night I had cause to drive to his house on urgent office business. The monsoon was at the height of its drenching fury and all phone lines were down; I couldn’t call him to say I was on my way over. Arriving in his driveway, I heard pulsating music coming from inside the house and dismissed my initial impulse to drive away and not bother him by ringing his bell. As I stood at his front door, my pathetic umbrella crushed by the downpour,  debating my course of action – why was I so hesitant to reveal my presence for an errand so excusable and urgent – I heard through the throbbing beat what I imagined to be moans of pain mixed with shouts of pleasure. After first ringing the  bell numerous times, then repeatedly pounding on his door to no avail, I concluded that what was going inside Philippe’s house was something that would not allow an interruption under any circumstances

As with most crises, the “emergency” in question solved itself in a  few hours and I berated myself  for having  risked bothering  him in the first place. When we saw each other in the office the following morning, without my saying anything about my unannounced noctural visit the night before, by his look it was clear that Philippe had tagged me as the culprit. We said nothing about the visit or the unaswered door and  I was struck by Philippe’s appearance. He looked terribly hung-over, but more than hung-over in the usual way; he appeared totally wasted and I noticed that his wrists were purplish and bruised.

Several days later, Philippe called me on the office inter-com and invited me for a drink after work. I was surprised that he was opening  his sancrosanct evening hours to me and I accepted his offer with eager curiousity.  I had learned through our working together and the limited socializing we had done, that Philippe never did anything without a reason. I was sure that his invite for sun-downers must have an agenda. I was not wrong.

After a couple of glasses of chilled white wine, Philippe produced a Burmese lacquer box, opened the lid and offered me a cigarette, smiling and saying, “Try one of these !” As I was an avid smoker at the time, I reached in the box and selected a cigarette which appeared to be hand-rolled; it had no label.    Quickly leaning towards me almost as though he were afraid I would change my mind, Philippe lit my cigarette with the massive silver lighter on his coffee table. After  I inhaled deeply, he smiled and asked, “How was it?” ” Nice enough, I replied…pas mal !” “It’s heroin,” he said.

I had always been curious about the infamous “Buddha Sticks” for which Burma and Thailand were reputed. The heroin from the Golden Triangle in the Shan State of Burma  was so pure that there was no need to inject or ingest it; smoking in the conventional fashion was sufficent for a good “hit.” Now that I had crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, I  found myself eager  to feel the effects of this forbidden form of getting high. I finished the joint, if that is what it was called, feeling really no different than I had been before partaking. Rather glad I had achieved this utterly taboo landmark in decadent sinfulness, I concluded that I preferred  my older habit, Marlboros. Better the Devil you know….I laughingly told myself.

I reflected on my “high tea” with Philippe later that night and concluded that his gambit was to get me hooked on this ultimate drug as he himself apparently was. Sinning loves company, I told myself. There’s safety in numbers, and all that. I noticed over the coming months that he arrived later and later in the office; sometime his car would not appear in the parking lot until nearly noon. His secretary, a crafty, homely local woman, covered skillfully for him. Luckily his type of work – he was assigned to the administrative side of the office – did not necessitate attendance at the interminable “Program” meetings that our “Projects” side of the operation required.

My curiousity peaked, I begin driving to his house in the evening on a regular basis and would  invariably  encounter the same scenario. Pulsating sounds emanating from a dimly lit house. Other times, the house was pitch dark at an early hour even though his car was in its garage.

Our lunches continued at Philippe’s house – I was never one to turn down good food and drink –  and I begin to notice many beautiful objects of art adorning his tables and shelves. Strangely, he made no mention to me of these rare-looking pieces. Pressing for a conversational opener that would shed light on this trove of Asian treasures – Buddha statues, antique silver, cloyless laquer objects, blue and white porcelain – a veritable museum of exotic ware – I commented admiringly on the display. Philippe responded quite openly telling me he had developed a little “side business” and was doing a brisk trade selling Burmese antiquities. Perhaps our recent “bonding” over smack had advanced our rapport to the point of intimacy, at least on his side. It went without saying that United Nations officials – and we were both career UN staff – were strictly forbidden from having other jobs  let ALONE engaging in commerce that involved trafficking in national treasures of the host country we were working in.

Having become a Buddhist, I found it sacri-religious and abhorrent to see Buddha statues serving as book-ends or positioned on the floor as door stops. I mentioned to Philippe after one of our luncheon tete-a-tetes that I thought it was unlucky to dis-respect the Buddha in such a way, selling Buddha statues for profit to be used inappropriately as interior decoration. These were sacred images. Nothing good could come of what he was doing. His flippant response shocked me. He said I was a superstitious old fuddy-duddy. Further, he stated that as a Roman Catholic he had no respect for graven, heathen carvings that were just meaningless idols; to make his point he planted  a kick on the head of  a stately Buddha statue on the floor that he had been using as a door jam.

While I was certainly not interested in joining Philippe in this illicit trade in what was supposed to be protected national patrimony, I had somehow come to the amoral conclusion that in the interest of self-protection ignoring what he was doing would be the best policy at least in terms of my own well-being. Should I report him, I asked myself, and if so, to whom ?  No, ratting on Philippe would not be wise, I decided. I had learned in my life thus far that the messenger who carries bad news is often  the one who gets shot, the one who is viewed as being just as guilty as the party he reports on. There was no point in my getting involved in a “he said-he said” scenario of accusation and denial. Besides, who knew what unsavory characters Philippe counted as his “friends” ? How had he procured the Buddha Sticks ? Certainly not from the Burmese Boy Scouts or  the local monastery ! On the one hand, I wanted to know nothing more about what Philippe was dabbling in; on the other hand, my curiosity was so great that I couldn’t help myself from becoming an amateur sleuth.

One afternoon I followed Philippe’s car as it drove through the maze of teeming side streets fronted by crumbling colonial-style buildings in the old section of Rangoon. One could still see the faded, collapsing glory of the stately old buildings with their noble facades and imposing columns. Now instead of  elegant lords and ladies of the realm  entering and exiting these portals I saw that a penniless goat herd had stationed himself under these soaring porticos, his tethered animals bleating while he cooked rice over a charcoal brazier on the sidewalk.  Pulling up to the back entrance of the Diplomatic Store where UN personnel had been given generous privileges to purchase tax-free items, especially wine and spirits, I watched from a  discrete distance as Philippe and a local helper loaded case upon case of Scotch and Brandy into the trunk of his car. From there his car drove to another part of town where he  off-loaded the cargo in exchange for several fat envelopes quickly handed to him by a suspicious-looking character.

When this transaction had been completed I drove back to the rear door of the tax-free shop and, by chance, ran into just  the person I was looking for; the helper who had assisted Philippe in loading  his car with the contraband. Trading on the sunny, talkative  innocence that is part of the Burmese disposition, I chatted with the young chap, inviting him for a cup of tea at a nearby stand on the street. As we squat-sat on tiny, low stools that barely cleared the pavement, I discretely probed  what was going on with Philippe and all those boxes of spirits. The young man was very open and confirmed what I had seen; that Philippe made regular purchases at the tax free shop, usually on a Saturday afternoon. Then he made a run to the black market thug I had seen give him the bulging envelopes that the young man said were full of greenbacks.

I had more than a blink moment when I realized what Philippe was doing. He was a drug-addicted, antique trafficking, black marketeer who was using his UN job in this developing country as a front for a variety of nefarious activities. He was also a sado-masochist who was  attracted to “rough trade.” Seeing his bruised wrists some months before had set me thinking. Then out of the blue,  his tongue loosened by too many Martinis, I heard from an antique dealer visiting Rangoon who was Philippe’s partner in trafficked Burmese artifacts, that on a recent trip to New York City where he had gone ostensibly to attend a UN conference on development, Philippe had been picked up by the police on the street in a seedy area in Manhattan. Bloody and  bludgeoned, he was found unconscious on the steps of a notorious S&M bar in Hell’s Kitchen, The Meat Rack, that catered to fetishists and fanciers of leather and bondage.

I reflected on what I had just learned and more broadly on the lives of expat “do-gooders” who worked  abroad for various international organizations, “saving” the world, the improverished, so-called Third World. Certainly we were not all twisted, black-marketing sadists, but WHAT were our motives and, more to the point, what were the tangible results realized by the developing world from all the “help” that was being given by us ? I wondered and wondered and found myself more confused the more I pondered.

One wise and learned friend who had spent most of his life in Southeast Asia, first in the development game, then after dis-illusionment had set in, moving to the private sector where he found great satisfaction and an acceptable level of profit, running a modest jungle retreat featuring tree-houses for back-packer tourists, opined that the whole development effort could be accomplished more effectively by dispensing with highly-paid international civil servants, aging Brit “experts” possessing out-dated technology, expensive, seldom-used equipment and useless study tours to “First World” cities (glorified shopping trips, he said !) and, instead,  just air-dropping over farmers’ fields the cash that would otherwise have been spent on these expensive  “interventions.”  Surely, we were doing some good, I told myself, but were we following the right path?

(To be continued.)

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