Why a Free Press is a vital institution to Free People
By Nate Thayer
April 17, 2015
Today marks a tragic day in the modern history of political mass murder by government.
Forty-two years ago today six separate armies, under the titular leadership of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, converged on the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and assumed control of the country. They were welcomed by most Cambodians. They were actively supported and encouraged by many, many leading figures from across the political spectrum.
Very few like to talk about that now. During the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days after April 17, 1975 that the Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia, 1.8 million Cambodians died through execution, starvation, forced labour, disease and other reasons that were a direct consequence of the appalling failures of central government policies. None of them deserved to die.
There is not a Cambodian I have ever met who did not suffer unspeakably as a result of the central policies of the Khmer Rouge while they were in power. I have wept many times for all those, many of whom are my friends, who did not deserve what happened to them.
In 1998, I was honored with the award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting of the Year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for my work in tracking down Pol Pot and reporting on what he did. I had, and in many ways still have, essentially three questions for Pol Pot and his comrades: Did you kill 2 million people?; Are you sorry?; And what the hell were you thinking?
Here is my acceptance speech at Harvard University for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists “Outstanding Investigative Reporting of the Year” award:
FINDING POL POT: OR HOW I KILLED POL POT
NATE THAYER’S STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review received the Center for Public Integrity’s first ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting at Harvard University on November 7, 1998. Here are excerpts from his acceptance speech:
“I am very proud to be a journalist, and there is really no greater honor than to be recognized by your colleagues, and I thank you for that, particularly given the nature of the people in this room. I am really humbled by it, by the award. Thank you again.
It is actually ironic because I am actually from this town. I graduated from high school about 200 meters from here at the end of this road, and I left 15 years ago to become a journalist, quite late in life actually–not until I was 28, 29.
I was a bureaucrat for the state government here in Boston. I was engaged to be married, which was a really goofy idea. I got fired. I was a really bad bureaucrat. And so I told the fiancée, “Forget it”, and I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok.
I had no journalism experience. I had no money. I had the indignity of having my mother co-sign a $15,000 loan so that I could survive, trying to get a job as a journalist. I thought I would go cover the wars of Southeast Asia. So I got to Bangkok, and I had forgotten to take the ex-fiancee’s name off the bank account. I rented a house, and I went to take my money out to pay my rent. She had fled to Mexico with her new boyfriend, with my $15,000 loan.
I was in Bangkok with no job, no money, a $300-a-month bank payment, no experience, no contacts, and really no fucking idea what I was doing. It was not an auspicious beginning to a new career.
So I went and did what I thought would be the way to do it. You go out and do stories and try to flog them around.
After a couple of months, the Soldier of Fortune Southeast Asia correspondent got blown up in Burma, and the publisher came to pick up his body. He needed a replacement, so he hired me at $400 a month. It was my first job as a journalist.
He said to go up to Burma, and there were a lot of wars up there at the time. I had no idea what I was doing, and I went up to Burma, went up to the Karen guerrilla areas. The front lines between the warring factions were about 50 meters away. A lot of you will know what a DK-75 recoilless rifle is–it is very loud and it moves. I thought, ‘well, I will get a picture of them, a rifle going off and hitting the enemy bunker.’ I positioned myself about a meter behind the rifle. Of course, I was blown back about two meters, my camera was blown up, and I still have permanent hearing loss.
Then I went over to the Cambodian border the next month. I am in the guerrilla zones and the guerrilla troops I was with had just captured a town, and I am coming back in a captured truck and we ran over two anti-tank mines. This killed everybody that was sitting in the front of the truck except me. That was my first few months as a journalist.
As we all know, often the stories behind the stories–how you get a story–is as interesting as the story itself.
We at The Far Eastern Economic Review were recognized for exclusively covering the trial of Pol Pot and then, a few months later, the first ever interview of Pol Pot in 20 years since he orchestrated the atrocities he did. Also, a few months later, I was the only person there when Pol Pot died.
And, in fact, I killed Pol Pot.
No, no I am not joking. It is a true story. I will tell you exactly what happened.
The Khmer Rouge did not have contact with anybody. They were probably the last Maoist guerrillas on the planet, living in the jungle. I had wasted most of my youth trying to develop contacts with them, and so they knew me. And so I got this call in early April of 1998, saying ‘we need to see you in the jungles.’ And so I left my home in Bangkok and I went up to northeastern Thailand, crossed over the border, and met the Khmer Rouge leadership, and they said, ‘We’re ready to turn Pol Pot over to the Americans.’ And I said, ‘Well, that is a good fucking story.’
I was the only American they knew, so they wanted to give me Pol Pot! What the fuck am I going to do with Pol Pot? Put him in the back of my pickup truck and take him back to the Far Eastern Economic Review office in Bangkok? I told them, ‘Look, there is this organization called the International Committee of the Red Cross, and I will get you in contact with them.’
So, I am up there in the jungle–we went to print on Wednesday–and I wrote the story saying that the Khmer Rouge were prepared to turn over Pol Pot. The story came out Wednesday night–at exactly 5:00 PM Hong Kong time. The Voice of America picked it up. It ran on VOA (Voice of America) Khmer language service at 8:00 o’clock Cambodia time that night. Pol Pot listened to VOA Khmer language service every night, and two hours and 15 minutes later he was dead. He committed suicide.
It was not the world community or the major powerful governments who brought Pol Pot to justice.
It was the Free Press that brought Pol Pot to justice.
We tried him, we interrogated him, and then we killed him. The Far Eastern Economic Review was a full-service news organization.
But it doesn’t actually stop there, because I was supposed to interview Pol Pot the morning after he died. And I got a call at 10:15 that night and–from Chinese hand cranked telephones from the jungle–saying Pol Pot’s dead, and my first reaction was ‘Oh Shit. My interview! I’m supposed to interview him tomorrow morning.’
Now, the Thais had always claimed they did not have contact with the Khmer Rouge, which was not true, but they had to maintain that fiction for political reasons. And the Americans had no contact with the Khmer Rouge for 30 years. So about 5 minutes after I hung up with the Khmer Rouge, I get this call from a certain western intelligence agency and then a few minutes later from the Thai army commander-in-chief saying ‘we understand Pol Pot might be dead.’ And I say ‘Yeah, I understand Pol Pot is dead, too.’ And the American and the Thai’s said ‘You can go in, you can cross the border, but we want you to bring back his body.’
And so I am driving in with my good friend, the cameraman David McKaige through some very unpleasant area with lots of very unpleasant people with guns. One of our missions was to pick up Pol Pot’s body, but my only real mission was to report what I saw and knew to the readers of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
I forgot to mention that the other thing was that–in a kind of shy way–this particular Western intelligence official said ‘Look, if you can’t get the body, you think you could’–they were looking for forensics because they needed proof that, one, it was Pol Pot, and two, he was dead, and three, how he died, right?–‘Could you cut off one of his fingers or cut off a piece of his hair.’
I said ‘Well, I will try my best’ and suggested that I would at least try to take his teeth. Pol Pot had two front false teeth.
Rumors would surely be rampant if this was really Pol Pot.
So, I get in there, and sure enough it was Pol Pot and he was dead. His wife was there.
I reached into Pol Pot’s mouth and removed his false teeth and said, ‘Uh, excuse me, Mrs Pot. Do you think I could have your husband’s teeth?’ She gave me a look I will never forget which said pretty much ‘My husband warned me that you people were very, very bad people.’ I took that for a no, and put Pol Pot’s teeth back into the mouth of his dead corpse.
I regret to this day I didn’t insist on just taking Pol Pot’s teeth.
Anyways, so that is part of the story behind the story.
I am very much honored by this award. And I thank you very, very much.”