The Road to Pol Pot: Snippets from a Journalists Memories

Behind the Scenes Reporting on War and Bad Guys

By Nate Thayer

June 11, 2016

I had worked for the Associated Press (AP) since 1989 covering the war in Cambodia and the myriad of guerrilla armies and refugee camps, based on the Thai border. I made 41 trips into the guerrilla controlled zones between 1989 and 1991, lasting from a day to two months in the jungle, covering firefights, war, and its related deprivation and human suffering. I was paid a salary of $400.00 a month by the AP, which were then known as “local hire” wages. After the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in October 1991, I was sent to Phnom Penh to be the Bureau Chief for AP in Cambodia, reopening the AP office 17 years after it was shuttered in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized power. For my new responsibilities as Bureau Chief, my salary was raised to $800.00 per month–no expenses included, which meant I had to pay for my own accommodations, food, and communication to file stories. These stories were sent from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, which were then sent to the AP Asia desk in Tokyo, and then on to the AP world desk in New York. I was first hired by the AP legendary correspondent Dennis Gray, the Bangkok Bureau Chief and the long time AP correspondent in Vietnam and Cambodia. He joined the AP after a stint as an army intelligence officer in Vietnam. He was, and remains, a man of great integrity, news sense, skill, and most importantly, an impeccably decent man and fair-minded man.

After arriving in Phnom Penh, in the summer of 1992 I was accused–by persons unknown to this day–of being a paid operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. These charges were made to the then Associated Press Foreign Editor, Tom Kent, who, without a shred of evidence, suspended me from my job as the AP Bureau Chief for Cambodia until an investigation was launched and completed. That so-called investigation, of course, proved the allegations to be spurious and unfounded. They were based on an anonymous letter sent to the AP headquarters in New York City.

In the summer of 1992, then foreign editor Tom Kent embarked on a whirlwind tour of the Foreign Bureaus of the AP to get a sense of what was happening inside the worlds biggest news organization over which he presided. I had never met the man.

I do remember when, in October 1989, while on assignment for the AP, I was seriously injured by a land-mine explosion while covering the war in Cambodia for the AP, killing or wounding everyone I was with.

The only message I got from the New York AP headquarters was not from Tom Kent, but from the AP corporate lawyer. In the letter, the AP lawyer made it clear I was not a staff correspondent and, while they felt terrible about the numerous broken bones, shrapnel injuries and brain damage I suffered, they were not responsible for any of my medical bills or other ramifications of the incident. “Dear Nate, We are very sorry to hear about you being injured in Cambodia and we wish you a speedy recovery…Because you are a freelancer, of course, the AP is not responsible for your medical bills or consequences of your injuries…Keep up the great reporting.”

I had to pay my own hospital bills, which were extensive and involved several years. Foreign Editor Tom Kent did, however, giving prominence to playing the story of “their AP correspondent” (that would be me) being wounded while getting what was at the time a minor AP world scoop involving the Cambodian guerrillas capturing their first district capital in the 12-year-old war. It was a major top world story on the AP wire, and it was widely published globally.

The truck I was riding in while reporting for the Associated Press after it ran over two Chinese anti-tank mines. Everyone was either killed or wounded in the blast

The truck I was riding in while reporting for the Associated Press after it ran over two Chinese anti-tank mines. Everyone was either killed or wounded in the blast

Dennis Gray, the Bangkok Bureau chief, was considerably more professional and sympathetic, though a miser when it came to compensating his correspondents under his charge in his Bangkok AP Bureau. He was and remains a foreign correspondent’s correspondent.

Here are select, random correspondence related to my search to understand and access the Khmer Rouge in their final years:

LETTER FROM AP BANGKOK BUREAU CHIEF TO COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF CAMBODIAN GUERRILLA ARMY:

Letter from AP Bangkok Bureau Chief Dennis Gray to General Dien Del, the Commander-in-Chief of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front

October 20, 1989

Gen. Dien Del

Commander-in-Chief

Khmer People’s National Liberation Front

Dear General Dien Del:

I wish to thank you and your fellow KPNLF officers and soldiers for the help you gave our reporter Nate Thayer, both in allowing him to report from Cambodia and in taking care of him after he was wounded.

We would also like to express our sympathies for the soldiers who died and were wounded along with Nate.

Nate tells us he received excellent treatment at the KPNLF field hospital and that you were kind enough to call on him personally in Aranyaprathet.

Please accept our regards and thanks,

Dennis Gray

Bangkok Chief of Bureau

Associated Press

A few hours after the truck I was riding in ran over a landmine in Cambodia (Photo by the excellent Philip Blenkinsop)

A few hours after the truck I was riding in ran over a landmine in Cambodia (Photo by the excellent Philip Blenkinsop)

LETTER FROM BANGKOK BUREAU CHIEF TO THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FOREIGN EDITOR:

Letter from AP Bangkok Chief of Bureau Dennis Gray to Tom Kent, Foreign Editor of the AP, New York August 1992:

To: Tom Kent

From: Dennis Gray

Subject: Thayer

Dear Tom,

Since Thayer’s abilities, etc. came up several times during your visit, I thought I should add a postscript:

From Tokyo and Seoul have come kudos for his performance in North Korea, which was totally foreign ground to him, and he won very high praise from very-hard-to-please (Peter) Eng for coverage of the recent Bangkok demos (In which the Thai army killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators protesting a coup d’etat during days of violent street fighting). So I am very pleased with our team here now—if we could only settle the Indochina matter.

A last thing on Thayer, which aroused my fury again today due to a lunch conversation I had with a Time magazine colleague from Hong Kong who said Thayer is being branded a “CIA type” by someone on the Far Eastern Economic Review. As you know, this type of thing can be very damaging to both individuals and companies. There is not one shred of evidence that Nate is working for anybody bt the AP and the occasional, legit media strings he has, or is an advocate of any one side in Cambodia or elsewhere. Should anybody in D.C.– or here–say otherwise, I suggest we threaten them with assassination–or at least a kick in you know where. Agreed?

All Best,

Dennis.

In August 1992, I was offered a job I couldn’t refuse.

The then world’s greatest media publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review, offered me the position of their Cambodian Bureau Chief. Accepting it was the best decision I ever made, professionally. The FEER was a reporter’s magazine. They trusted their reporter’s. And they supported them. And their excellent editors based in Hong Kong respected us in the field in our various wonky, irrelevant-to-most countries throughout Asia. FEER had no issues with upsetting the local powers to be. Their only requirement was that the reporting be accurate and on issues of import to the common good.

Cover Story of the Far Eastern Economic Review August 1997

Cover Story of the Far Eastern Economic Review August 1997

Below are some selected correspondence from some of those years reporting for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

 

LETTER FROM U.S. AMBASSADOR CHARLES TWINING TO THE CAMBODIAN GOVERNMENT:

Classified letter from The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Charles Twining to the Cambodian Interior Ministers on threats to press freedom and journalists, after several journalists were assassinated, and plots to assassinate me were intercepted by U.S. intelligence, June 1994:

Department of State

Fm: AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH

To: SECSTATE

SUBJECT: LETTER REGARDING PRESS FREEDOM

1. DUE TO SOME FEARS IN RECENT WEEKS THAT GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS’ COMMITMENT TO A FREE PRESS MAY BE WAVERING, THE AMBASSADOR WROTE INTERIOR MINISTERS SAR KHENG AND YOU HOKRY, AS WELL AS INFORMATION MINISTER IENG MOULY, JUNE 20, TO REINFORCE THE NEED FOR CONTINUED FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN CAMBODIA.

2. TEXT OF LETTER AS FOLLOWS.

BEGIN TEXT.

I AM WRITING TO EXPRESS CONCERN OVER THE PERCEPTION THAT THE PRESS INSIDE THE COUNTRY–BOTH CAMBODIAN AND FOREIGN–FEEL THREATENED. I AM NOT IN A POSITION TO KNOW WHETHER THIS FEAR IS WARRANTED OR NOT, BUT IT IS REAL.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IS OF COURSE GUARANTEED BY ARTICLE 41 IN THE CONSTITUTION. IT IS ALSO ONE OF THE BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS RECOGNIZED INTERNATIONALLY.IT HAS BEEN A CORNERSTONE OF POLITICAL FREEDOM IN THE UNITED STATES FOR OVER 200 YEARS.

AS WE PERCEIVE ANXIETY ON THE PART OF THE CAMBODIAN PRESS THAT ITS RIGHTS MAY BE IN DANGER, I AM ALSO CONCERNED ABOUT THE RIGHTS AND WELFARE OF THE INTERNATIONAL PRESS OPERATING HERE. THIS IS PARTICULARLY WITH REGARD TO THE AMERICAN JOURNALISTS ASSIGNED HERE, SUCH AS STAFF MEMBERS OF THE PHNOM PENH POST, AND REPORTER NATE THAYER. WHILE WE MAY SOMETIMES DISAGREE WITH THE VIEWS OF ONE WRITER OR ANOTHER–HONEST MEN WILL DISAGREE ABOUT SOME THINGS–I WILL ALWAYS DEFEND THEIR RIGHT TO PRESENT THEIR VIEWS, EVEN ABOUT ME OR MY STAFF. I ALSO COUNT ON THE ROYAL GOVERNMENT TO ENSURE THE SECURITY OF THESE PERSONNEL.

I AM CERTAIN, FOR EXAMPLE, THAT THE PHNOM PENH POST AND MR. NATE THAYER WOULD BE PREPARED TO CONSIDER MOST SERIOUSLY PUBLISHING VIEWS WHICH THE GOVERNMENT MAY WISH TO PRESENT. I KNOW THAT I CAN COUNT ON YOUR EXCELLENCIES TO CONTINUE TO SUPPORT THIS FREEDOM FOR ALL JOURNALISTS INSIDE THE COUNTRY.

END TEXT

TWINING

 

ks2

LETTER TO KHMER ROUGE PRIME MINISTER KHIEU SAMPHAN:

Letter to Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan from me July 29, 1996 after having been summoned across the planet to their jungles to be lectured by a mid level Khmer Rouge official who wanted their message delivered to the United States Government:

HE Khieu Samphan

President

Party of Democratic Kampuchea

Dear President Khieu Samphan:

Please allow me to express my appreciation for the recent invitation to meet your representative HE Mak Ben in the liberated zones of Cambodia under the administration of Democratic Kampuchea.

As always, I am very interested in hearing in detail and in person, the DK analysis of Cambodian politics. And, as always, I am committed to reporting accurately and without bias on Cambodian affairs. As you know, this commitment has contributed to me being expelled from Phnom Penh by the current authorities who are unhappy with my reporting on important issues that concern the nation and the people.

However, I am disturbed by perhaps a misunderstanding on the part of Democratic Kampuchea on what my job is and who I work for. Let me be very and unequivocally clear: I am an independent journalist. I do not nor have I ever worked for the United States Government or any other government. I am not an agent of the CIA nor am I an agent of any arm of any government.

I was clearly under the impression from my meeting with Mak Ben that Democratic Kampuchea believes me to be an agent of the United States government and that you had requested to see me in order to relay a message to the American authorities.

If you were to ask me–which you did not–specifically to send a message to US authorities, I would be happy to do so. I have very good contacts, as you know, with key people involved in Cambodian affairs in a number of governments, including the United States. If I can contribute to a better understanding between the DK and any other government, that is good for Cambodia and I am happy to do my part to help Cambodia.

But it is not my job.

Frankly, to spend the equivalent of two months salary on flying around the world to meet Mak Ben for three hours for the sole purpose of relaying a message to the United States government is, mostly, a waste of my time. It seemed that none of the issues that I had asked to talk about during my previous trip to the liberated zones in May were taken into consideration.

I was treated with a lack of respect for my professional duties as a journalist and historian.

I am a journalist working for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Because of difficulties with the Phnom Penh authorities, I am no longer able to effectively report from Phnom Penh. While I remain the Cambodia correspondent for the Review and will continue to write on Cambodian affairs for them, I am now based in Washington as a visiting scholar of Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, Foreign Policy Institute. This is a respected Washington University influential in foreign policy affairs.

I am working on a book on post 1978 Cambodian political history. This book will detail the struggles of the various political factions since your political organization was in power until 1978 until the current period. Obviously the struggles of the DK play a key, significant and dominating part of this period of Cambodian history and I want to reflect accurately the leading role of your party and army during this period. If you choose to talk to me about it, I would be honoured. The book I expect will be widely read by policy makers and historians and it is important that people understand the nature of your struggle. I would hope that you would find it important to invite me back to discuss this important part of Cambodian history. This would require I meet senior leaders of the DK Party.

I am officially, once again, requesting that I be able to meet you, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and other key leaders of your movement. But let me be clear: Do not invite me back if I am only to be lectured by a mid-level cadre such as HE Mak Ben and treated as though I am a messenger boy for the U.S. government. It is a waste of my time, money and effort.

Lastly, and importantly, I wanted to follow-up on a matter of great personal interest to me that I raised several times before, including in my recent trip where I met HE Mak Ben in the liberated zones. During the last months, I have followed with great interest the fate of my friend Christopher Howes, who was seized by your forces while conducting humanitarian work removing land mines from agricultural areas in rural villages near your liberated zones.

I have received irrefutable and precise and clear information from Cambodian and other sources that Chris has been killed by forces under your command. I know this to be true. His family and the international community want and need to know the proof of the fact that Chris is dead so they can rest in peace from a traumatic months of anguished uncertainty. I am sure you are aware that all over the world during times of conflict that these situations arise and that innocent people die after straying into harms way. I will ensure that you will be given due credit as having acted on humanitarian good will by providing proof of Chris’s death so his family may have some closure to this unfortunate tragedy.

Please contact me to let me know what I can do to help bring this chapter, which has brought the DK considerably bad publicity and will continue to do so, until there is proof and closure to Chris’s case.

I would like to request once again that I be able to meet with you and HE Pol Pot and speak about important Cambodian political issues of newsworthy interest to the Far Eastern economic Review., but I am on a limited budget.

Do not invite me back if I am only to meet with a low ranking cadre such as Mak Ben. It is, frankly, a waste of my time, effort, and money. My trip to accept your invitation to the liberated zones where I met Mak Ben cost me a huge portion of my total budget to research my current work projects, and I have to be very careful how I spend my money.

As you know, I have devoted much of my professional life to attempting to report fairly on Cambodian political issues because of my great fondness for Cambodia and its people.

My current situation allows me to have significant influence on those involved in making foreign policy decisions regarding Cambodia. But in order for me to have influence, I must have knowledge. In order to have knowledge and credibility, I must have access. I think you can see we have some common interests here. So once again, I request formally that you allow me to visit the liberated zones to speak with you and to HE Pol Pot on these issues of critical importance to Cambodia and its future.

If I can not meet with people of your rank or senior, please do not, in the future, waste my time or yours.

With Sincere and warm regards,

Nate Thayer

Cambodia Correspondent

Far Eastern Economic Review

IN PURSUIT OF POL POT IN THE JUNGLES OF NORTHERN CAMBODIA

IN PURSUIT OF POL POT IN THE JUNGLES OF NORTHERN CAMBODIA

LETTER TO A TOP AIDE TO POL POT IN THEIR JUNGLE REDOUBT IN ANLONG VENG:

 

Letter to a senior Khmer Rouge cadre based at their clandestine jungle headquarters of Anlong Veng, responding to his handwritten, hand delivered messages to me by human runners in Phnom Penh, June 1997:

Dear XXX,

I have been here in Surin for several days. I got your messages. I am sending this note with our Thai friends.

I would very much like to see you. Maybe our Thai friends can request if you ask them to. Please stay in contact. I will await your reply. I hope you are safe and well.

Best regards,

Nate

ANOTHER LETTER TO THE SAME KHMER ROUGE OFFICIAL:

 

Another message from me given to a Cambodian government general on a remote mountain military base in the northwest Cambodian jungle, late June 1997. He was on a secret visit by helicopter to Khmer Rouge headquarters delivering ammunition to Khmer Rouge forces who had mutinied against Pol Pot but not yet successfully:

Dear XXX,

I hope you have received my messages through the usual channels. I am writing this from O’Smach where I came yesterday driving by car from Siem Riep.

I very much want to come talk to you or Khieu Samphan and understand the real situation regarding Pol Pot. If I was to see you, your message would be spread clearly and honestly to the world. Now everyone is very confused as to the changes in the DK leadership and what your objectives are.

The reason is there is no independent confirmation of anything. This I could provide so the world could receive your message clearly.

You would then not have to worry about efforts to distort or block or manipulate your message. I will report the facts honestly, as you know well over the years.

Please make arrangements with our Thai friends and/0r friends in the Cambodian government to invite me and give permission for me to enter Anlong Veng and your liberated zones. I can either cross from Thailand or cross from the Cambodian side in the jungles near O’Smach.

I will await your reply through the usual channels or through General XXX XXX

I hope you are healthy and safe.

Sincerely,

Nate

My long suffering feet (Photo Philip Blenkinsop)

RESPONSE LETTER TO ME FROM TOP KHMER ROUGE OFFICIAL HOLED UP IN THE JUNGLE ENCLAVE OF ANLONG VENG WITH POL POT:

A few days later, in June 1997 after Pol Pot had been captured by mutinous forces, a hand scrawled message delivered to me on a mountain top in Northwest Cambodia when a helicopter briefly touched down, a soldier ran out and gave me a scrap of paper, from the same senior Khmer Rouge cadre by Cambodian government military intermediaries:

Dear Friend,

I am pleased to receive your short message. We have many difficulties and I have a lot to talk to you about. I will meet with you soon. The time and place will be arranged later with the help of our Thai friends. You can trust them.

 

LETTER FROM PROVINCIAL GOVERNOR OF SIEM RIEP (A FORMER GUERRILLA COMMANDER), REGARDING POL POT:

Handwritten letter to me hand delivered in Phnom Penh June 22, 1997 by the governor of Siem Riep province, General Tuon Chhay. General Tuon Chhay, a senior Funcinpec official, had just defected from the Funincpec Party in an internal rift. Ten days before Pol Pot had assassinated his defence Minister, Son Sen, and Khmer Rouge troops had mutinied against him. While there had been no formal confirmation, Pol Pot and his loyalists had been captured by the Khmer Rouge army chief and confusion reigned in the jungles and Phnom Penh as to what the true situation was. A week later, Hun Sen and the CPP would launch a coup against Funcinpec and a new civil war erupted:

Dear Friend,

I am well as are my colleagues.

I fought the leadership in the Party of HE Prince Ranariddh because otherwise the Funcinpec Party will go down. But I have small support from the high-ranking officials of Funcinpec, but the grassroots people and the older Funcinpecists support me.

I have learned the real situation of Funcinpec but the corrupt high Funcinpec people (the high ranking one did not) do not realize that the Funcinpec will be driven down. They are spoiled by the victory of the last election. They do not think to work properly as I had expected, but the CPP does their job. I feel very ashamed of Funcinpec and of the CPP.

Now they accuse me that I sell my head to be a puppet of the CPP.

They know (Funcinpec) how to criticize, but they do not know how to work.

The relations, cooperation and collaboration with the CPP is destroyed. Each side, they move to strengthen their own parties but not the government. There is no political stability.

Today, June 22, my close little brother went to Anlong Veng. He saw Pol Pot who is staying in a secret house. He (P.P) looks very old and very sick.

Within the next few days, Khieu Samphan will declare from Prwah Vwihear temple to abolish his Khmer Rouge party as well as their provisional government of “National Solidarity.”

Chan Youran, Pech Bun Reth, Mak Ben, Tep Khun Nal, Thioun Thioun, Ko Bun Heng were all captured since June 15 by Ta Mok. Now they stay in Anlong Veng.

Your Friend,

Chhay

A week later, the CPP launched a coup against Ranariddh and Funcinpec, killing hundreds, and driving tens of thousands to the jungle and across the border to Thailand. One month later, on July 25, 1997, I was allowed into the jungle headquarters of Anlong Veng, where I witnessed and photographed the jungle trial of Pol Pot. It was the first time he had been seen or photographed in two decades.

+MAGS OUT+, ONE TIME USE ONLY, NO ARCHIVES, ++ SWEDEN OUT, DAILY MAIL AND SUNDAY TIMES OUT ++ Notorious Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot is assisted by soldiers as he arrives to attend his trial 25 July during which he was denounced by former comrades at the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia. The veteran revolutionary and three of his top commanders were "tried" and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of former Khmer Rouge defence minister Son Sen and his family. AFP PHOTO Copyright-1997 Nate THAYER/Tom KELLER & Associates +MAGS OUT+, ONE TIME USE ONLY, NO ARCHIVES ++ SWEDEN OUT - DAILY MAIL & SUNDAY TIMES OUT ++

+MAGS OUT+, ONE TIME USE ONLY, NO ARCHIVES, ++ SWEDEN OUT, DAILY MAIL AND SUNDAY TIMES OUT ++
Notorious Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot is assisted by soldiers as he arrives to attend his trial 25 July during which he was denounced by former comrades at the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia. The veteran revolutionary and three of his top commanders were “tried” and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of former Khmer Rouge defence minister Son Sen and his family. +MAGS OUT+, ONE TIME USE ONLY, NO ARCHIVES

AFTER I FINALLY ACCESSED POL POT AND INTERVIEWED HIM, A LETTER FROM THE TOP EDITOR OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL NOMINATING ME FOR A PULITZER PRIZE:

Letter from the Foreign editor of the wall Street Journal nominating me for a Pulitzer Prize, January 1998:

My nomination for the Pulitzer Prize by the Wall Street Journal–1998. This letter of nomination was written by the WSJ Foreign Editor John Bussey:

January 5, 1998

Urban Lehner

Nayan Chanda

Nate Thayer

Urban/Nayan/Nate—Here, FYI, is my nominating letter for Nate’s story. I’m entering it for U.S. newspaper awards: the Pulitzer, the Polk (already sent) and the OPC. Just a reminder: I wrote this for strategic reasons, in a manner that emphasizes the U.S. newspaper coverage, noting that the story was published in the Review the same day.

Best, Bussey–NY

Pulitzer nomination, International Reporting

Nate Thayer’s Interview With Pol Pot

In the pantheon of 20th century butchers, Pol Pot has always rated a spot on the A-list. The world lost count of how many Cambodians he and his genocidal Khmer Rouge killed during the 1970’s and subsequent years. The accepted figure: somewhere in the millions.

For the last twenty years, Pol Pot remained a murderous enigma–a shadow variously reported deposed, injured or dead. No one outside the innermost circle of his communist cadre had even spoken with the man. The most recent photograph of him dated from 1979. On the run, deep in the Cambodian jungle, crisscrossing his killing fields, Pol Pot eluded his enemies, eluded accountability, eluded explanation.

That is, until freelance reporter Nate Thayer, at great personal risk, tracked down and interviewed Pol Pot. It was the journalistic coup of 1997. Writing for the Wall Street Journal in the U.S. and its sister publication, the Far Eastern economic Review in Hong Kong, and publishing his exclusive interview on the same day in both the Journal and the Review, Thayer ripped away Pol Pot’s anonymity. His feature-length story, written under intense deadline pressure, was riveting: Here was the mass murderer, unrepentant,explaining the geopolitics of genocide, talking wistfully of fatherhood and his 12-year old daughter–writing history. Thayer’s story was an international sensation, and virtually every major publication and broadcaster in the world picked up lengthy excerpts. Indeed, no single international story in 1997 transcended Thayer’s blockbuster interview with Pol Pot.

Sometimes the story behind the story is as exemplary, and this is one of those times. Nate Thayer’s pursuit of Pol Pot began in 1989, when he started reporting from Thailand on the Khmer Rouge. Freelancing for U.S. and Asian publications, he made dozens of trips into the jungle, sleeping and eating with the guerrillas, reporting on firefights, gaining the confidence and respect of all sides in the deadly conflict. On one reporting trip he was gravely injured when the truck he was riding in hit a land mine, killing several of his companions.. He contracted cerebral malaria, and was hospitalized several times. His stories inevitably infuriated one side or the other. One commander broadcast a reward for his capture; another ordered him assassinated on sight.

All the while, Thayer pressed to see Pol Pot. In June of this year, he sensed his opportunity was at hand: Khmer Rouge radio announced Pol Pot had been arrested as a traitor. Thayer began working his extensive set of guerrila contacts in Cambodia, Thailand and Europe, sending messages through operatives and meeting in the jungle with field commanders. He sometimes found himself in the thick of the fighting–only to retreat and start the process over again.

In a letter to his Journal editors, Thayer writes about one trip into a Khmer Rouge zone this summer: “We were not told where we were going or who we were going to meet. I was very aware that the last three Westerners who had gone to this exact area had been murdered and that a government negotiating team that was invited in February had been ambushed and that 11 of the 15 members of the team were executed. The others are still being held hostage. We did not know who was in control–whether anyone was in full control–and whether there were factions that opposed my visit. The jungle was thick along the road as we descended the mountain, a place easily ambushed. I had been ambushed before in guerrilla areas after being assured that the areas were secure. It was not irrelevant that the Khmer Rouge executed many foreign journalists in their day. I was not relaxed.”

His years of cultivating friendships with peasant commanders paid off. After five months of working his network, Thayer was taken into the jungle and permitted to watch a Khmer Rouge trial of Pol Pot, and then, several weeks later, granted the first interview in two decades with the deposed despot.. His extraordinary freelance story on October 23 in the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern economic Review was the result. (Thayer subsequently, in November, joined the Review staff.)

For his notable courage, and top-notch journalism, we are pleased to nominate Nate Thayer for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting.

October 23, 1997, Wall Street Journal, An Interview With Pol Pot: Master of the Killing Fields, By Nate Thayer

REPORTING ON THE KHMER ROUGE

REPORTING ON THE KHMER ROUGE

THE OFFICIAL JUDGES COMMENDATION AWARDING ME THE “OUTSTANDING INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER OF THE YEAR” BY THE INTERNATIONAL CONSORTIUM OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISTS:

 

Award from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, November 1998, Harvard University

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

1998 Award For Outstanding International Investigative Reporting

Judges Commendation

The winner of ICIJ’s first award for international investigative reporting rescued history with his courageous and enterprising reportage on the final days of Pol Pot.

He illuminated a page of history that would have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodia jungle, in a truly extraordinary quest for first-hand knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and their murderous leader. His investigations of the Cambodian political world required not only great risk and physical hardship but also mastery of an ever-changing cast of factional leaders.

His amazing persistence, as well as endurance and bravery, allowed him to be a witness to the final days of one of history’s most barbaric despots. he was the only representative of the press allowed to attend the jungle trial of Pol Pot by his disillusioned Khmer Rouge Peers. He was the only Westerner later to be able to interview Pol Pot at length.

he, alone, was able to ask the murderer the eternal question—why?–on behalf of the millions of Cambodians exterminated under the Pol Pot regime.

His reporting was serious and informative on the factions and personalities that led to a once untouchable ruler being tried by his own people. And, yet, he was extremely restrained about his own presence. A lesser journalist would have drawn attention to his achievement in obtaining these worldwide exclusives.

Nate Thayer’s years of hard work, detailed reporting, and clear understanding of Cambodia’s murky politics gave the world a ringside seat at the demise of one of the most notorious leaders of the 20th century.

The judges, therefore, would like to commend you, Nate, for a remarkable piece of journalism and present you with this first ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting.

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Comments

  1. Ed Story says

    Nate, you may not remember me but we met in DC many years ago to talk about Mongolia. Later in Bangkok we had a long lunch together with a friend of yours from Jane’s. Where are you these days? Would love to catch up in Bangkok if you are ever there. I am still in the oil business principally in Vietnam but have my own thing to work with elephant conservation principally in Thailand.

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