John McBeth, Asia’s Longest Serving Foreign Correspondent, Dies at 79

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John McBeth, Asia’s Longest Serving Foreign Correspondent, Dies at 79

McBeth was a standard bearer for big stories, honest and fair reportage.

John McBeth, Asia’s Longest Serving Foreign Correspondent, Dies at 79

John McBeth with his wife, Yuli Ismartono.

Credit: Special arrangement

New Zealand-born John McBeth, one of Asia’s pre-eminent journalists with a record of scrupulous and ground-breaking reporting, has died after a short illness. He was 79.

Over a career spanning more than 62 years McBeth’s reporting helped shape events in countries including South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia.

McBeth was a blunt-speaking “old-school” reporter and author whose writings pulled no punches and influenced many of the region’s policymakers over decades.

John McBeth was born in Whanganui, New Zealand on May 31, 1944, the son of Taranaki dairy farmer Sandy McBeth and Isla Dickenson.

After attending New Plymouth Boys’ High School, he commenced his journalism career at the Taranaki Herald on February 8, 1962 and moved to the Auckland Star in late 1965.

For McBeth, like many New Zealand journalists of that era, London’s Fleet Street beckoned. He headed off on a cargo ship that inadvertently grounded during a night-time entry into Tanjung Priok harbor in Indonesia.

Stepping ashore, he immediately fell in love with Asia and never left.

He took pride in being an Asian “lifer” – often chiding many of his colleagues who came to the region for a few years but never stayed.

After spending time in Jakarta and Singapore, McBeth settled for many years in Thailand, where he worked for publications including the Bangkok Post, Agence France-Presse, United Press International, London’s Daily Telegraph, and the Hong Kong-based Asiaweek.

He was one of the first Western journalists to uncover the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia, often arriving at the border to interview survivors after a long and arduous overnight bus journey from Bangkok. He revealed how Cambodian refugees, unable to cross into Thailand, were forced back into the Khmer Rouge’s minefields.

His early reporting of the Khmer Rouge’s purges was initially met with incredulity by many other correspondents.

McBeth’s earlier reporting from Thailand also focused on the broader Indochinese refugee crisis and the Vietnam War, writing with passion about the plight of refugees and war victims.

He wrote about the Thai pirates who raped and murdered Vietnamese boat people.

In May 1979, McBeth joined the staff of the Far Eastern Economic Review, then Asia’s top political and economic affairs publication.

He covered five coups, including the aborted one that killed his close friend, Australian cameraman Neil Davis, in 1985.

McBeth was a larger-than-life member of Bangkok’s hard-living and working international press corps, loving Thailand and its people. It was in Bangkok that he met his future wife, Yuli Ismartono, a foreign correspondent from Indonesia.

He wrote analytical pieces and many exclusive reports from offices in Bangkok, Seoul, Manila, and Jakarta.

Collaborating with colleagues Nayan Chandra and Shada Islam, McBeth broke the story that North Korea was developing a nuclear weapon.

While based in Manila, McBeth had a leg amputated but he was determined the setback would not impinge on his career and he was soon back writing exclusives for the Review. His wife Yuli helped him through his illness and restore his confidence so he could return to field reporting.

He wrote about Filipino warlords, the fall of Indonesia’s President Suharto, and in a series of articles in 2002 shone a light on the investigation into the Bali bombings, among countless other stories.

From the end of 2004 until early 2015, McBeth wrote columns for the Singapore Straits Times, specializing in Indonesian and regional affairs.

His work has also appeared in The National (Abu Dhabi), the Nikkei Asian Review, the South China Morning Post, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist, and more recently the Asia Times. He also featured in a podcast with The Diplomat.

McBeth’s 2011 book “Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia” describes many of his stories. His 2016 book “The Loner: President Yudhoyono’s Decade of Trial and Indecision” reviews the decade that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spent in power.

McBeth was a confidante of many of Asia’s diplomats, politicians, and policymakers.

He was a mentor and inspiration to many of the region’s journalists, particularly locals working for local publications, and railed against journalists whose writings failed to make clear what was fact and what was opinion.

John McBeth is survived by his wife Yuli Ismartono, a prominent Indonesian journalist.

John’s friends, including journalists Lindsay Murdoch, Michael Vatikiotis, and Philip Bowring, contributed to this obituary.