Former Associated Press writer Hari S. Maniam and American consul Robert Stebbins recall their parts in the Japanese Red Army hostage crisis in Kuala Lumpur, 1975.
There's nothing like an office with the right view, when you’re a journalist covering a breaking story. And that’s just what Associated Press writer Hari S. Maniam had, during the Japanese Red Army siege of the American Embassy here in August 1975.
He had popped into the office on Aug 4, his day off, with his wife S. Kamakshi (who passed away in February last year) and his grand-nephews. Back then, the wire service occupied the penthouse of the since-demolished China Insurance Building on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
It had an open balcony, explains Maniam, now an executive with The Star Online (where he's known as H. Subramaniam), “and there were no tall buildings between it and the AIA building on Jalan Ampang, where the US embassy was then located”. Maniam’s grand-nephews were playing on the balcony and suddenly shouted that they could see many police cars. He went out to look and saw a crowd gathering.
“My first thought was that the First National City Bank (now Citibank Berhad) on the ground floor was being robbed,” Maniam recalls. He called the bank, where he was a customer. “They said it was not there but something was happening at the US Embassy and they didn’t know what it was.”
Next, he rang the embassy. “One of them told me some gunmen had come in and were holding some of the people hostage,” he says. “They didn’t know any details because it was on another floor and it had just happened.”
Later, he managed to get Frank Bennett, who headed the embassy’s political section, on the phone and asked him what was happening. “He didn’t want to tell me,” says Maniam, who called again a few minutes later. “He said he still couldn’t talk to me.”
Maniam then told Bennett that if he didn’t comment, he would file a story saying gunmen were holding the US embassy hostage and officials contacted by telephone had declined to confirm or deny it. “Within two to three minutes he called me back and read a statement to me that the JRA had taken hostages and the highest-ranking officer was US Consul Robert Stebbins.”
Maniam filed his story, which was the first on the hostage-taking, “beating all the wires”. And for the next few days, he says: “I lived in the office. My wife brought me food and clothes. I bathed and slept there, but she didn’t grumble.”
From the office balcony, Maniam remembers: “I could see everything happening. It was like having a bird’s-eye view of everything going on. I had a pair of binoculars. Occasionally I would walk over.” But the hours were long, he admits. “I would doze off and then get up and work.”
The siege was the biggest news event he covered in his career, he reflects. “And my biggest coup in the whole coverage was that after the hostages were released, I was the first to speak to Stebbins.” After the consul returned to his home, Maniam called and asked to speak to him.
The head of the public affairs section, who answered the phone, said Stebbins “was very distraught and couldn’t talk now. I asked, are you deciding for him that he’s tired? Ask him if he will talk to me and if he will, you shouldn’t deny him.”
In the end, Stebbins agreed to talk and Maniam bagged the first interview, typing it up as they spoke. “AP was very, very happy with the interview,” he says.
The wire service had not sent reinforcements earlier as they thought it would be over by the next day. Denis Gray, who was the Bangkok bureau chief, walked into the office on Aug 7 and said he was there to help. “I said they just took off for Libya,” Maniam chuckles. “You can take over. I’m going home to sleep.”
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A LESSON NOT FULLY LEARNED
“In 1975, it was possible to drink a root beer float at the A&W on the ground floor of the AIA building, conceal your pistol in your shirt or overnight bag full of bullets, hand grenades and other explosives, then take an elevator to the 9th floor and enter the Consular Section of the US Embassy without having to undergo any search or inspection,” says Robert Stebbins.
Today, he is happily retired in California. But in the first week of July 1975, he and his family had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur. It turned out to be, literally, his baptism of gunfire as the new US Consul.
Entry to the 10th, 11th and 12th floor of the Embassy back then was through the 11th floor, after screening by Marine Security Guards, he explains via email. The 10th and 12th floor could then be reached through open stairwells.
But the stairwell from the 9th floor to the 10th floor couldn’t be used: it was locked and chained. And about half of the time, Stebbins and his three Malaysian colleagues could not get through to the rest of the Embassy by phone, due to bad connections.
About a fortnight after he began work, he recalls: “I began to be concerned about being outside the protected area of the Embassy and our frequent inability to communicate with the Embassy by phone. The four of us were alone and isolated outside of Embassy security.”
The Consul brought this up with “the responsible Embassy officer who, in effect, ignored my concern. As I was so busy with usual consular work, complicated by Vietnamese boat refugees who had started arriving, I just didn’t have the time or energy to argue or pursue the matter.”
In retrospect, he says, that was “a big mistake and failure on my part.” And he reckons the members of the Japanese Red Army who took over the 9th floor on Aug 4 that year “chose the AIA building because it was an easy target. It appears that they researched their plan and discovered that the Consular Section and Swedish Embassy were completely unprotected.”
After all, he points out: “They didn’t choose to attack the US Embassy by trying to enter via the 11th floor.”
After the four-day siege ended, the Embassy stationed a Marine Security Guard at the door of the Consular section but, Stebbins says: “I don’t believe that operational procedures changed that much.”
About two weeks after his release, he spoke to Charge d’Affaires Robert Dillon: “I told him that there were a few things that I needed to get off of my chest.”
Dillon arranged for Stebbins to make a trip back to the Department of State in Washington, DC, where he met about eight to ten high-ranking officials in management, security and other related bureaus.
“My message to them was that in the changing world of 1975 and beyond, absolutely no one should be allowed to enter a US government facility without first being inspected and/or searched,” he says. “This should even include USIS libraries, commercial and/or travel offices associated with the US government.”
He recalls this “was met with courtesy, but some reluctance by people who had always felt that requiring security checks would discourage people from visiting their offices. Was my message heard? Who knows?”
He thinks opposition to that message has weakened over the years, but warns that there probably still are US Government facilities that lack proper security. “Had the US Government and the world learned any lessons as a result of August 4, 1975?” he muses. “I would like to think so, but....”