Why Journalism is Better than a Real Job: Excerpts from Sympathy for the Devil
Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia
(Copyright Nate Thayer. No publication or distribution in whole or part without express prior written permission from the author)
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By Nate Thayer
By 1994, after more than a decade focused on Cambodia and its war, I only had one more objective: To interview Pol Pot. And then, I told myself, I would leave that wicked country forever.
And the opportunity was tantalizingly possible.
Brewing dissatisfaction within the Khmer Rouge ranks were creating cracks in their armor, opening up potential new means for me to access the core of their inner circle leadership holed up deep in the jungles. Where there was turmoil, there was an increased possibility that I could wangle my way into the heart of the Khmer Rouge central command.
I had found that the Khmer Rouge opened up to me when they had difficulties which often left them with issues they wanted to clarify or explain to outsiders. Turmoil and weakness increased the likelihood that they would want to play that card. And I was forever scheming to ensure that the vehicle they used to do so would be me.
I was always encouraging, maneuvering for, and poised to take advantage of increased and higher level contacts within their ranks. I approached it as an endless chess game, requiring long-term strategy and patience and an intimate knowledge of one’s opponent. By the mid 1990’s, obstacles were being removed and I was advancing. I knew from viewing their chessboard that I was closing in, however slowly, on their king—Pol Pot.
For many years, my biggest fear was that Pol Pot was going to die on me before I was able to meet him. I would wake at night, my stomach in knots, with the thought of years of effort abruptly extinguished with Pol Pot’s last breath.
It was, indeed, a very real possibility. I was regularly getting hard intelligence that he was stricken with various maladies. I knew of several occasions when Pol Pot was secretly transported and, under an assumed identity, admitted to Thai military hospitals in Bangkok and flown for medical treatment to Beijing.
Pol Pot had the infirmities of an old man who had lived his life on the run and in hiding in the unforgiving conditions of jungles and war. These ailments included heart disease, malaria, chronic respiratory disease, and a stroke that had left him partially paralyzed and nearly blind in one eye. Once, he was injured by an ember that exploded into his eye from an open cooking fire. Disease and accident, I had learned, were far bigger killers in the jungles and during war than an enemy bullet.
As well, there was always the possibility that Pol Pot would be murdered. He did, after all, have a formidable array of worldwide enemies, ranging from superpowers with the means, if not will, to use their million dollar assassination toys to peasant farmers percolating with hatred with revenge in their hearts who would slice his throat with a farm implement if given the opportunity.
However, I was less worried about his enemies getting to him before I could, given the extraordinary and intricate wall of protection he skillfully maintained and fanatically enforced.
Barring these two possibilities of disease or murder, which literally gave me years of waking angst and fitful nightmares, I was convinced that, one day, I would meet Pol Pot face-to-face and he would have to answer the questions that haunted his broken countrymen.
In 1996, through smuggled letters and meetings with their underground operatives in Asia and Europe, I pushed harder to convince them to allow me access to their leadership. I argued, plausibly and with good reason that they clearly had to try something new.
The Cambodian government and international community were perplexed by the silence of the Khmer Rouge leadership hunkered down in the jungles and were unclear of what they wanted. The Khmer Rouge had let no one into their territory in three years—since my last visit—and clearly they were now in a weaker position after disengaging from political dialogue and returning to the jungle and embracing a policy of open civil warfare.
The Khmer Rouge knew they had to do something different, but they did not know what. And they were asking my opinion and advice, listening more attentively to my arguments and analysis. They needed to do something to reengage in the Cambodian political process. What they needed more than their tired, discredited tactics of vitriolic rhetoric and terror, I argued to them, was a public relations offensive to shed new light on the blackened mystique that they earned rightfully and had shrouded their movement and Pol Pot for decades.
Much of that mystique was, in fact, not politically threatening to them. Allowing independent, credible eyewitnesses as close to unfettered access as possible to the personalities that led their guerrilla movement and the daily life of the civilians in their territory could surely not further harm their image. And I allowed as how—over and over and over again–I would gladly volunteer to be that person.
I would bluntly repeat the refrain that it was virtually impossible for them to get worse press than they had accumulated over the years and which had become solidly etched into their international reputation. A fresh look from inside their territory, talking with their leaders and loyalists, could not possibly result in a diminished reputation for these men accused of one of modern time’s most egregious state polices of mass murder and crimes against humanity. There very name was already a household catch phrase worldwide synonymous with unspeakable brutality and senseless carnage of innocents.
The fact was that in the eyes of the world and their fellow countrymen, they were virtually the devil incarnate. And the Khmer Rouge leadership knew it. What possibly could I write that would further blacken their well-earned reputation and image, I asked them.
For years, my two perennial requests were to travel to their jungle bases and to interview Pol Pot. I always made these two requests specifically and formally—like a mantra—dozens of times.
I would end an encounter or interview with Khmer Rouge cadre with s specific request that they take a message to Pol Pot that I wanted to meet him. Periodically, I would replace with newly formulated logic the one that had failed the last time. Just as assuredly, I always came away with a polite response and promise to forward the request through their channels. And for more than a decade, no firm answer ever materialized.
I believe that many of the low and mid-level Khmer Rouge cadre sympathized—and were, to a degree, amused and in awe of—the sometimes ridiculous and always relentless lengths I would go attempting to access the inner sanctums of their military and political movement and secure an interview with their leader, Pol Pot.
They had, over a number of years, of course tried everything to reject me; they arrested me at gunpoint, shot at me, ordered me killed, banished me, robbed me, and took me to their leaders and, under interrogation, accused me of being a CIA spy before expelling me over the Thai border in disgust to be arrested by Thai authorities.
Literally nothing dissuaded me. I was fully cognizant and reconciled to the fact that there was a strong chance I would die in these jungles. I always tried to be smart with tactics, having already committed to a strategy that required accepting a high degree of intrinsic danger. But I never once declined to proceed into the war zones and Khmer Rouge territory simply because it was dangerous.
I continued to show up, mostly uninvited, over the years in virtually every corner of their jungles, often where no foreigner had ever been.
I arrived by foot, in captured Russian military vehicles driven by defecting government soldiers during battles, on the back of an elephant, by bicycle, riding dirt bikes supplied by the CIA to non-communist guerrillas, by river on commandeered sampans, by ox-cart, by rented helicopter, accompanied by United Nations troops, guided by my own hired mercenaries, escorted by Thai military intelligence Special Forces soldiers, accompanying Thai businessmen who traded logs and gems with the guerrillas, by logging truck, and by hired taxicabs. I can remember more than once the driver of a hire car simply refusing to go any further into the scrub or jungle and abandoning me to walk the last few miles.
I once traversed the trench lines into Khmer Rouge territory driving the rented jeep of a corrupt Cambodian military general, adorned with full government regalia identifying the vehicle. I remember startled guerrilla troops popping up from bunkers, leaves and branches crudely camouflaging their helmets, as I weaved past their front line trenches around minefields in abandoned rice paddies. I was advised by flummoxed Khmer Rouge commanders to never, ever do that again.
Whether I had permission or not, arriving in Khmer Rouge territory was, by definition, under dangerous circumstances—through combat front lines, from enemy held territory, over mountains, crossing national borders and always there was a minefield separating the two areas.
I came to their guerrilla bases from north, south, east and west, almost always only to be turned away, usually empty-handed, time and time again. I didn’t mind the rejection. The chase itself was a fun-filled adventure and a young man’s fantasy.
It certainly was better than a real job.
My persistence, I think, struck a familiar chord in some Khmer Rouge cadre of revolutionary self-sacrifice-against-daunting-odds that many of them could relate to, having themselves disappeared as eager, patriotic youths in their prime into the jungle more than twenty years previous, waiting for naught the revolutionary victory.
By the mid 1990’s, I had become rather legendary within the Khmer Rouge army and political ranks, I was to learn, as this reckless, perhaps insane, rather likable American, who was probably a spy, who appeared in the oddest of circumstances.
I viewed an interview with Pol Pot as a professional equivalent to how they viewed overrunning Phnom Penh and capturing the keys to the Kingdom.
If they were not impressed, at least they were entertained by this shaved-headed American who would not go away.
And for those who were not entertained, I at least had become a kind of fixture, like some half-mad Dennis the Menace to the Khmer Rouge’s Mr. Wilson, who the guerrillas grew, eventually, resigned to affectionately tolerate…..(to be continued.)
Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia. (Copyright Nate Thayer. No publication or distribution in whole or part without express prior written permission from the author)