Solving the mystery of Jim Thompson’s murder

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One of the oldest unsolved mysteries in Asia has been solved. The following is an account of how the mystery of Jim Thompson’s disappearance was solved and how the documentary film that tells the story was made.

On Easter Sunday in 1967, Jim Thompson went for an afternoon walk in the Cameron Highlands’ jungle-clad hills. The American businessman who became known as the “king of Thai silk” was on a vacation in Malaysia with friends at the Moonlight Cottage, a colonial-period villa in the old British hill station north of Kuala Lumpur.

Something happened during his walk. Thompson was never seen again. His disappearance has been a mystery for half a century. A huge search turned up nothing. No ransom or other note was found. The man left his medications behind when he left, which suggested foul play. Several books have been written about him, spawning an array of theories about his fate that ranged from tiger attack to a CIA plot.

A breakthrough in the case was made in 2013 by my Thai friend Xuwicha “Noi” Hiranpruek. He called and said, “I think I may have solved the mystery.” Noi recounted a discussion he had with a Singaporean friend Teo Pin, who told him the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) had killed Thompson during his visit to the Cameron Highlands. This was a new theory. How did Teo Pin know this? It was a deathbed confession of an uncle, Teo Pok Hwa, who had been a senior CPM cadre for decades fighting against the British and, later, the Malaysians.

I met Teo Pin in Singapore. He was a pleasant, soft-spoken fellow, but was on guard, reticent to speak about Thompson’s demise to a stranger. I told Teo Pin his information could be very important in explaining Thompson’s death and asked for details. He said his uncle Teo Pok Hwa told him that when Thompson arrived in the Cameron Highlands he began asking to be put in contact with Chin Peng, the secretary general of the CPM, then the most wanted man in Malaysia.

Teo Pin said asking to contact Chin Peng aroused immediate suspicion in the Camerons, a longtime stronghold of the CPM with a pro-communist civilian population of ethnic Chinese and a jungle in which to hide. The Moonlight Cottage, where Thompson was a guest, had at one time even been a local headquarters of the CPM. Staff members were CPM sympathizers at the time he stayed there.

Jim-holding-silk
Jim Thompson, an American who helped to invigorate Thai silk industry. He went for a walk in the Cameron Highlands in March 1967 and was never seen again. Photo: Provided by author.

The year 1967 was a bad time for an aging American with a background of gathering intelligence to seek out the most wanted man in Malaysia. The communist struggle was not over. A second “Emergency” began a year later and did not end until the Malay communists surrendered in 1989. Thompson was put under surveillance while the CPM checked his background. They learned that the American had been an intelligence officer during World War II. He was suspected of being a spy.

At the time, communication was difficult for the CPM. It lacked radios and relied on couriers to carry messages among disparate groups around Malaysia and their headquarters in Betong, Thailand, just over the border. Each CPM cell was pretty much on its own and handled security issues themselves.

A local decision was likely made to kill him. The decision was carried out and Thompson was killed during his Easter Day walk in 1967. The uncle even joked that if Thompson had been attacked by a tiger, there would have been bones. But the CPM made sure that no bones or other physical evidence was found.

I told Teo Pin his information needed corroboration. Was there anyone who could confirm Teo Pok Hwa’s story? He said no. His uncle abandoned his wife and five children to fight for the CPM and had been away for decades. When the uncle contacted Teo Pin he was destitute and in failing health. He had no friends to turn to, so reached out to family members who were anti-communist. I thanked him and said we would continue to look for confirmation.

So, who was Jim Thompson? Much more than a silk merchant, for starters. He was a graduate of Princeton University in New Jersey from a prominent Delaware family. More important, he had served with distinction as an officer in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the Second World War.

Unlike some OSS colleagues who shifted to the CIA when it was founded in 1947, Thompson left government service and disagreed with US foreign policy after the war. He opposed the return of colonial powers like the French returning to their colonies in the region

Thompson proved adept as a clandestine operator in North Africa and Europe, winning five Bronze Star medals along the way. When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, a number of OSS “stars” were shifted to the China-Burma-India theater of operations. Jim Thompson, now a major, was one of the officers selected.

In Thailand, Thompson became friends with the liberal postwar prime minister Pridi Banomyong, who had served secretly as a leader of the anti-Japanese resistance. Unlike some OSS colleagues who shifted to the Central Intelligence Agency when it was founded in 1947, Thompson left government service and disagreed with US foreign policy after the war. He opposed the return of colonial powers like the French returning to their colonies in the region.

But it did not affect his friendship with people he had served with. A good example is Willis Bird Sr, a top OSS officer who had known Mao Zedong in China during the war, who rose to be a colonel before he left and set up businesses in Thailand, including airlines and selling weapons to the Thai government. Thompson was loyal to old friends including Pridi, who was forced from office by a coup d’état by his old nemesis Plaek “Phibun” Phibunsongkhram. When his counter-coup failed, Pridi fled into exile in China.

The search for Thompson’s killers suddenly came to life in the spring of 2017 when Noi called me again. “I have a second source,” he said. Noi had been looking for a source to corroborate the information from Teo Pin and finally found one. While trying to track down people who knew Thompson, Noi approached his old friend Willis Bird Jr, known to his friends as Billy. Noi told Billy he was trying to find out what happened to Thompson, who they both knew from childhood. Billy told Noi he wanted to see him and talk about their missing friend.

Noi recalled, “Billy was quiet for two or three minutes … and said ‘Can I tell you something that I have never spoken to anyone about for 50 years?’ He then told me about a conversation between his father and Jim Thompson.” Willis Bird Sr was an OSS officer in the war and a friend of Thompson also.

Both were close to Pridi Banomyong when he was prime minister in 1946. Willis told Thompson in 1966 that Pridi – in exile in China – wanted Willis to come to see him. Willis thought it was a bad idea. The US and Thailand were heavily involved in the Vietnam War and Laos. Willis wanted nothing to do with Pridi, who was seen to be a communist sympathizer. When Willis refused to visit Pridi, Thompson said he would go, despite Willis Sr advising against it.

Willis was actively involved in the Vietnam War helping the Thai army rebuild after the Second World War. He told Billy he knew Thompson would accept the invitation because he was an idealist and a risk-taker.

Thompson was also loyal to Pridi and willing to make the hazardous journey to see him. The first leg of the journey would be the Easter trip to the Cameron Highlands. When Thompson disappeared, Willis Sr told Billy the Communist Party of Malaya must have killed Jim, possibly at the behest of the Communist Party of China.

Noi saw Teo Pin came to the same conclusion because of the deathbed conversation with his uncle. Willis Bird Sr had told his son the CPM had killed Thompson while he was in Malaysia where Willis thought Jim was trying to arrange further transport to meet Pridi. Willis thought the Cameron trip was a prelude to a later journey he planned to undertake.

My next move was to contact Neil Hollander, my partner at Adventure Film Productions. Neil and I have made about a dozen films in Thailand and Myanmar, including four for the Jim Thompson Foundation (he was director, me producer). With editor Adam J Goldstein from New York, we shot and edited a 43-minute film in Thailand and Malaysia – interviewing Xuwicha Hiranpruek, Teo Pin and Willis Bird Jr.

Jim Thompson was an unwilling participant and an unlucky victim of the power struggle that gripped Southeast Asia after World War II.  Xuwicha found two sources of information who provided key pieces that helped solve the mystery of Jim’s untimely death. Teo Pin identified the group that killed Jim and Billy Bird provided the reason why Jim tried to visit Pridi Banomyong via the Cameron Highlands.

But questions still remain. Why did Thompson ask to see Chin Peng, the CPM leader? The move was bound to arouse suspicion and put his life at risk. It is ironic that Thompson, a man who had forsaken a life of clandestine adventure and turned his back on politics should be lured back into “the game” to help an old friend.

His past called him back, and on Easter Sunday 1967 on a jungle path not far from the Moonlight Cottage, now known as Jim Thompson Cottage, he paid the ultimate price.

The film is scheduled to be shown in Bangkok for the first time at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on December 6, 2017.

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