A Journalists Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
By Nate Thayer
(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. No publication or citation permitted without author’s express written permission.)
By 1994, the Khmer Rouge leadership once again evaporated into the jungle. To my frustration, my methodically constructed stable of Khmer Rouge sources was now deep in hiding.
They continued to communicate with me through an elaborate network of underground agents and Communist party cells. But it was a tortuous web, elaborately compartmentalized to obscure the identity and isolate the location of the guerrillas from their enemies.
It would often take weeks, even months for a message from the jungle to get to me in Phnom Penh. Sometimes they would contact me through intermediaries by phone or deceptively postmarked mail. Other times notes would be hand-delivered by well dressed strangers who arrived at my house unannounced, politely exchanged pleasantries, decline to introduce themselves, and hand me a sealed envelope.
They would then slip back out into the bustling city through the mazes of armed checkpoints, unpaid government soldiers to busy sleeping or extorting money to look for Khmer Rouge agents.
And I was always organizing my periodic trips across Cambodian government frontlines or over the Thai frontier to the guerrilla bases themselves.
Even though it was a war-zone, I felt most relaxed deep in the jungles. I felt much safer under the protection of the disciplined Khmer Rouge than the unpredictable anarchy in government towns.
In Phnom Penh, I slept with loaded automatic weapons by my bed and rarely left my house without a pistol and extra ammunition clips.
With the guerrillas, I always slept peacefully in my hammock, tied to two trees, a symphony of whooping monkeys and insect’s overhead, surrounded by armed bodyguards who were charged with ensuring no one harmed me.
Messages from my Khmer Rouge contacts were always short and vague, the circumspect handwritten scrawls on ripped out notepaper almost palpable with intrigue and fear.
“My Dear Friend, I got your message. If you can get here, we have already agreed to meet you. Ask our Thai friend who gives you this to help. You can trust him We have many difficulties and there are many things I need to talk urgently about,” read one typical unsigned note in its entirety.
Even their written messages seemed to rise off the page in a clandestine whisper.
There was urgency to their missives but they always left me unfulfilled, desperate to know more. Their culture of secrecy permeated their every breathing action, their every move the instinctual second nature of a hunted animal.
If you read the above message, you will notice, on second reading, there is no clue on why they wanted to meet, where the meeting was, when it would be, who it was with, or what it was about. The notes themselves, when they risked committing to paper, would not even betray whom it was from or that it was intended for me.
There was a feeling off stark vulnerability whenever engaging with the Khmer Rouge under such conditions. I never knew where I was going or when I would be back. I always went anyway.
All Khmer Rouge communication was like this. It is a fundamental lesson in all clandestine services: reveal nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary to accomplish your mission—and after decades in the jungles the Khmer Rouge had hones it to an art.
This succeeded in leaving them firmly in control of all encounters and maximally impenetrable to their enemies.
And make no mistake. They had no doubt I was an enemy agent.
Given their historically intolerant view of the likes of me, I was always keenly alert around them. If it was expedient or useful, I never had any doubt my closest Khmer Rouge sources would kill me without emotion. And they often changed their minds of whether one was a friend or foe.
Most of those killed by the Khmer Rouge were loyal cadre who had been deemed, almost always out of unfounded paranoia, ‘exposed’ as an enemy agent. For Khmer Rouge cadre, it was, in fact, more dangerous to be a Khmer Rouge loyalist than their enemy.
But such political thinking was fundamental to Cambodian political culture and all political leaders and parties operated under such a psychological foundation for pursuing and maintaining power.
No one trusted anyone else, including one’s closest comrades. Betrayal and purges had been fundamental to Cambodian politics throughout modern history.
It is rare to meet any Cambodian who has a problem with murdering civilians as a concept. The parameters of the moral debate are simply confined to the merits of the victims.
But importantly, in 1992, I had been formally deemed a potentially useful enemy by Pol Pot himself, I was told by a Khmer Rouge cadre close to the top leader. Pol Pot had ordered that a channel be kept open to me. He had deemed me useful to getting their message out in as empirical and neutral manner as they could hope for.
His reasoning was that my writings were read by those world figures who were involved in forming Cambodian policy. I was guardedly comfortable with that. In Cambodia, that is the best a foreigner can hope for: A strategic enemy but tactical ally.
In 1993, some of the top cadre with whom I had become close sought permission to communicate with me without prior notification of and approval from the party. When Pol Pot agreed, this was a crucial development in improving my access.
All cadre knew it was unwise to question the wisdom of Pol Pot, and followed his orders unquestionably. Pol Pot’s absolute control of all aspects of the organization’s activities presupposed that a Khmer Rouge cadre simply did not have encounters with an American, little less establish a personal relationship, without the clear approval of Pol Pot himself. The penalty for such recklessness was death.
Pol Pot’s sanction of limited access for me was the function of the quality, influence, and reputation of the primary publications I worked for.
The Far Eastern Economic Review, my primary employer, was the finest newsweekly on Asia—and required reading around the globe for the limited number of diplomats, officials, academics, businessmen, and journalists interested in the region.
It was authoritative and serious and scrupulous and courageous in the quality and accuracy of its in-depth, often exclusive reporting. It covered even the most obscure reaches of Asia comprehensively with depth and persistence and insight.
Countries like Cambodia have few readers and advertisers and this was a key reason why most media devoted few full-time resources to its coverage. When something happened in Cambodia—or elsewhere in remote corners of Asia—the Review had already provided the context and preludes that preceded the breaking news.
It was also in a unique position to have in place people who had the sources and knowledge to provide superior coverage.
It was a reporters magazine, driven by an eclectic group of correspondents who often had years of history in the areas they covered. The reporting was backed up by superb editing which ensured its content was fair, comprehensive, and accurate.
The Phnom Penh Post—the first independent newspaper in Indochina since 1975—was a courageous, scrappy, and detailed bi-weekly newspaper that was read by everyone in Cambodia who was involved in any aspect of policy. It published the details and gave the space that only a local paper can provide.
It was started in 1992 by my good friend Michael Hayes, an American who had no newspaper or business experience who had left his work as a humanitarian aid official with the Asia Society, and started the paper with his own life savings from scratch.
I lived at the Phnom Penh Post during my years in Cambodia in a three-story villa which housed the newspaper offices, production facilities, and the living quarters of Michael, his wife Kathleen, and myself. It was a center of constant hubbub, with a steady 24-hour stream of incoming journalists, varied visitors, sources, and newspaper employees producing the paper.
I also wrote for Jane’s Defence Weekly, the preeminent authority on military matters, and the Washington Post, which was required reading by everyone in Washington.
Between them, the Khmer Rouge expected that, in their attempt to spread their message, an honest, accurate analysis that would have a far-reaching impact would emerge.
They were often not happy with my missives, but also knew that very little could be written which would further blacken their reputation. “ We believe you are serious,” they said to me more than once. They were used to being the target of often inaccurate, speculative, and invariably hostile reporting that focused only on their years in power.
In contrast, we covered current issues regarding them as well. I always provided background context that included their atrocious history and current dictatorship, but they were used to this after years of unrelenting criticism. They knew full well that they were culpable, and respected my criticism of their organization as long as it was accurate and comprehensive, regardless of the requisite negative content.
Aside from my forays into the jungle, I was used to meeting more cosmopolitan Khmer Rouge political leaders and diplomats in five-star hotel lobbies and at diplomatic functions.
But after 1994, two years after he withdrew the Khmer Rouge from participating in the UN election process, Pol Pot ordered them all back to the jungle. I wasn’t even sure where along the 800-kilometer swath of mountainous jungles over the Thai border my Khmer Rouge sources were hiding.
Innumerable times, I travelled for days to remote villages near the Thai frontier on instruction from the Khmer Rouge to meetings. As often as not, a liaison would never materialize. Or I would be guided to an obscure guerrilla base where some mid-level cadre would spout useless propaganda already broadcast verbatim over their clandestine radio.
Hungry for gossip, news, or rumour, I relentlessly pursued any source that might offer information. I flew to cities in Asia, North America, and Europe trying to glean information from shadowy sympathizers, relatives of cadre, and former guerrillas who had left the movement, and other underground operatives. I met with spies and diplomats from numerous countries charged with tracking the guerrillas. And I was constantly in contact with Cambodians of all political affiliations, whose agenda I covered equally, and who often knew of activities within the Khmer Rouge through their fellow Cambodians.
Each of these encounters, sometimes involving weeks of work, would perhaps produce only a quote or single detail or a rumour to pursue or confirm. I would sort these tidbits of knowledge and carefully piece them together, constructing a portrait of what was happening in the jungle and publish it as an article. It was a frustrating, tedious, and usually fruitless business reporting on the Khmer Rouge: that is why there was effectively on one else who bothered to try. But I enjoyed the methodical challenge and it fit my personality to work alone and focus to fruition on a single task.
But for most of the world, by 1995 the Khmer Rouge leadership had simply slipped silently into the impenetrable forests of northwest Cambodia, contact severed completely, and guerrilla war resumed. Like a disturbed hornet’s nest, they dispatched small, angry squads of troops to attack around the country, emerging from the jungle to strike vulnerable government outposts, massacre ethnic Vietnamese civilians, and blow up trains and bridges. They then immediately evaporated back into the forest.
“The resistance forces are everywhere. We can attack the two-headed, one-eyed puppets and their American bosses everywhere!,” a secret 1995 internal directive by the Khmer Rouge leadership to military commanders said, referring to the fragile UN elected coalition government of co-prime ministers, and to the war wound that left Hun Sen blinded in one eye when he was a loyal lieutenant of Pol Pot. “We can cut the highway anywhere, any bridge and culvert. We are going to cut it over and over until the two-headed government…and the Americans turn their tail and run.” The directive instructed: “ Cut the enemies throat! Cut the enemies throat! Cut the enemies blood arteries! Tragic fit, tragic death to all the enemies near and far!”
Nothing was subtle with the Khmer Rouge. This is how they talked in conversation, sputtering vitriol and contempt for the rest of the country who they had dehumanized simply because they weren’t loyal to them.
Westerners who stumbled into Khmer Rouge units after 1993 were regularly kidnapped and brutally executed. They included, as well as many Asian nationalities, Australians, Americans, Belgium’s, French, German, and British citizens. I was involved in every case. They all died an appalling death. I was to learn eventually that their executioners included some of my closest Khmer Rouge friends. Each and every one of their families contacted me, my telephone number given to them by their governments who were unable to assist them. They had been told I might have influence or leverage with the guerrillas and they were desperate for help in saving their husbands, sons, and daughters.
These remain some of my most painful experiences. I was not able to save any of them. I did, often after months of work, gather the grisly details of the demise of each. I remain haunted by the stricken, inconsolable anguish on the faces of their loved ones. They invariably wanted to know every last bit of gruesome information.
It is equally true for the millions of Cambodians who were, in some ways, unlucky enough to survive the Khmer Rouge brutal years in power.
But, by 1995, behind the veneer of confidence and aggressiveness, there was a cancer metastasizing at the heart of the Khmer Rouge movement.
I knew from the private whispers of grunt Khmer Rouge soldiers on the frontlines and forests, Pol Pot’s 1992 decision to pull out of the Paris Peace Agreements, forego the internationally recognized 1993 UN elections, and break the cease-fire, was considered by many Khmer Rouge cadres as a disastrous, perhaps fatal mistake. Thousands of rank-and-file felt this way but seethed in silence.
Expressing disagreement on such matters was suicide. But the reality was self-evident. Pol Pot and his small group of core leadership were very much like the emperor with no clothes. Instead of bringing them closer to power or peace, the Khmer Rouge were now utterly isolated, opposed by the mass of the peasantry, covert foreign military and material aid severed by China and Thailand, and at war once again. Morale was abysmal.
After two decades of war and unspeakable suffering, the hopes and opportunity for peace that came with the 1991 signing of the Paris Peace Accords had been squandered. Many Khmer Rouge cadre believed that their leaders had failed them and were deeply disappointed. Others were bitter and angry. But expressing opinion or dissent within the Khmer Rouge was unthinkable.
And to add to the simmering frustration of the Khmer Rouge, in the eyes of their enemies they were increasingly not viewed as a serious threat. For an organization that took pride—in the manner of a neighborhood gang of bullies—in forcing others to accommodate their demands through intimidation and sheer terror to be largely ignored by their enemies, was deeply demeaning. And a humiliated Khmer Rouge had the potential to strike back irrationally to demand attention. They were dangerous enough when they were rational.
After the 1993 UN elections, the Khmer Rouge’s biggest threat, in fact, came from within their own ranks.
Swatting malarial mosquitoes and eating plain rice seasoned only with salt and sprinkled with dried fish boiled on an open jungle campfire, sleeping in their hammocks slung between trees in the forest, rank and file cadre listened with growing resentment to short-wave radio broadcasts of the international embracement of the government that emerged from the 1993 UN elections.
Foreign companies, diplomatic recognition and international aid flooded to their enemies, bolstering their legitimacy and threatening the Khmer Rouge with becoming sidelined as a superfluous political force.
The Khmer Rouge, in contrast, remained without electricity, running water, health care, schools, and, increasingly, hope that they would ever taste the fruits of peace, little less victory.
Never willing to address unpleasant realities, the Khmer Rouge went to absurd lengths to put a positive spin on their increasingly desperate conditions. “Our army, our guerrilla forces , are more and more respectable regarding their view, their political knowledge, their economic situation, their welfare, their attitude toward the peaceful relation scheme, their stance on spying activity, and their awareness of the undermining activity,” wrote the top Khmer Rouge leadership to senior commanders in a secret policy and military strategy directive in November 1995. “Thanks to these qualities, the number of our cadre are multiplying; the number of our forces increases; and our forces are more disciplined, more decisive, braver and more resolute to fighting the two-headed national traitors, slaves of the Vietnamese communists and their alliance. The slaves of the Vietnamese communists and their alliance are being swollen, decomposed, and rotten, all devoured by maggots, and having no more flesh.”
The Khmer Rouge, like all Cambodian political factions, seethed in hatred and utterly intractable absolutes. This is the bane of Cambodian political culture—not just the Khmer Rouge—and central to understanding the unending instability in Cambodia. There is no concept of compromise or common good, little less common ground. If you disagreed with the Khmer Rouge, you were a “slave” of the “national traitors.” One did not seek to just defeat the enemy, but preferred to see their bodies not just dead but “rotting” and “devoured by maggots.” You didn’t just execute someone who opposed you, you tortured and humiliated them first, and then murdered their wives and children.
Not only were the Khmer Rouge short of friends and money, but weapons and ammunition. The cessation of foreign and military aid was addressed by boastful self-delusions that they were self-sufficient.
In 1995, they ordered all soldiers and civilians to meet a quota of carving homemade bamboo stakes and other crude weapons. “The strategic weapons that we now call our ‘main forces’, sharp-pointed soldiers, very sharp are punji sticks, and booby traps. These are the strategic weapons we experimented with and the results are highly effective. These forces are located all over, and bamboo, woods, poisons, resins, machetes, axes, and knives are all locally abundant. It can be said that factories making strategic weapons to fight the enemies exist locally and are abundant all over, in lakes and rivers.”
This was the Khmer Rouge leadership’s response to the cutoff of covert military aid from China and the 1994 UN imposed sealing of the border with trade from Thailand. To Khmer Rouge soldiers who had to face the reality of a well-armed enemy in battle, this was not only profoundly insulting, it was life threatening. Their leaders were now asserting that bamboo stakes constituted superior firepower.
As a result of such preposterousness, Khmer Rouge cadre increasingly directed their resentment not so much at their enemy as at their own leaders.
Many Khmer Rouge felt their future was passing them by. Defections of frontline troops increased. Morale was abysmal. Soldiers pulled back in battle rather than risk death in a war they now had only a veneer of allegiance to. The blind loyalty of armed cadre long demanded by their faceless leadership, and enforced by fear, was on the brink of dangerously unraveling.
And the Khmer Rouge leadership reacted by cracking down on their own loyalists.
Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge top military field commander and Army chief-of-staff, not so affectionately known as “The Butcher”, lamented that “pacifism has entered our cadres” and that “there is confusion, a blending of our essence and our enemies,” referring to increasing contact with villagers in government-run frontline areas and growing sympathies among his troops to end the war. The Khmer Rouge top leadership ordered all contacts severed with villages not strictly under their control. “We have continued to exist with them, eat with them, peacefully allied with them to the point that some of our own cadres and ranks have repeatedly been put in danger. In some of our units, enemy elements comprise 50-60%.” To be deemed an “enemy element” was a spine chilling accusation.
Their leaders made clear to their subordinates, in a secret internal document distributed to frontline units at the time, that they were being closely watched. “Our first responsibility is we must be clean. Our major responsibility is to clean up our act,” warning not to sympathize with proposed negotiations to end the war which they referred to as “the peaceful relationship scheme.” “Our ranks , our cadre, must be clean, our skin clear, free of smell, no peaceful relationship scheme, no spying activity, no internal undermining, nothing to be compromised at all…”
When, that same year of 1995, the leadership ordered troops to attack and burn to the ground front-line villages in northern Siem Riep province they suspected of not being sufficiently sympathetic, more than 1000 Khmer Rouge troops defected instead of carrying out the order.
When I visited, the scene was surreal. Hundreds of Khmer Rouge soldiers in pea green Chinese PLA style uniforms lounged in the markets, flirting with local village girls, their commanders firing artillery they had taken with them, now firing back at their former comrades just past the tree line that marked the border from the rice paddies to the guerrilla jungles they had inhabited for thirty some years until only days earlier. “When we went to fight, we didn’t see other nationalities,” said former Khmer Rouge battalion commander Tung Yun. “ we fought because we were ordered to do so, but in our hearts none of us wanted war anymore.” He spoke for thousands of others still in the jungles.
In an atmosphere that forbids questioning the policies of their leaders, with no outlet to vent their disappointment and debate the merits of returning to war, conditions were ripe for an internal Khmer Rouge explosion of violence.
To be honestly transparent, in retrospect, part of me viewed this growing international and domestic consensus for peace and stability as a fundamental career threat.
But while I loved being a war correspondent, this war was now meaningless.
The fact was, by 1994, I, too, was tired of this war. I, too, did not want to be the proverbial last person to die in a war which now clearly had no purpose other than each side trying to secure raw and maximum power.
After the withdrawal of the Vietnamese occupying troops in 1991 and the United Nations forces in 1993, it was now a war without issues, stripped to the carcass of armed conflict which is simply mans raw excercise of his most primal, uncivilized instinct for power and vengeance through violence and superior force; simply a winner takes all bloody grab for power.
And the rank and file on all sides knew it. The soldiers from all the political factions still at war were nothing more complicated than pawns for a few hundred powerful and rich so-called leaders who weren’t courageous enough to wage peace and just wanted all of the pie. Many rank and file on both sides refused to fight seriously when ordered to battle, firing from a safe distance and reluctant to engage in tactics which threatened their lives.
By 1995, I had only one more objective in Cambodia, and that was to meet and speak with and interview Pol Pot. And ask him two simple questions. “Why?” And “Are you sorry?” And then, I told myself, I would leave this wicked society forever.
I viewed brewing dissatisfaction within the Khmer Rouge as creating cracks in their armour, opening up potential new means of access for me.
Where there was turmoil, there was increased opportunity 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 possibility that they might have to play that card.
And I was constantly scheming to see that the vehicle they used to do so would be me. I was always encouraging, maneuvering for, and poised to take advantage of such contacts. I approached it as an endless chess game requiring strategy and patience and an intimate knowledge of one’s opponent. I knew from viewing the chessboard that I was closing in, however slowly, on their King, Pol Pot. Obstacles were being removed and I was advancing.
For years my biggest fear was Pol Pot would die before I was able to meet him. I would wake at night, my stomach in knots, with the thoughts of years of effort being concomitantly extinguished with his last breath. Barring that, I was convinced that one day I would meet him face-to-face and Pol Pot would have to answer the questions that haunted his broken countrymen.
In 1996, through smuggled letters, meetings with their underground operatives, and visits to their guerrilla bases across the frontier Thai borders in the jungles of Cambodia’s north, I pushed harder for them to allow me access to their leadership, arguing plausibly that they clearly had to try something new.
The Cambodian government and the international community were perplexed by the silence of the Khmer Rouge leadership and unclear what they wanted. They had let no one deep into their territory for four years–since my last visit—and they could see clearly they were in a weaker position since disengaging from the outside world.
They didn’t have to be convinced that they needed to do something, but they didn’t know what. They needed to re-engage their movement to the Cambodian political process.
What they needed rather than their tired, failed tactics of vitriolic rhetoric and terror was, I suggested, to shed light on their internal movement to lessen the blackened mystique that had shrouded their movement and Pol Pot in for forty years. Much of that mystique was not politically threatening to them, but simply allowing access to the personalities and daily life in their control zones.
My perennially repeated request was that they allow an independent, credible witness as unfettered access as possible. A fresh look from inside their territory, talking with their loyalists, couldn’t possibly result in them having a diminished reputation in the eyes of the world, I repeated to their cadres. They were already a household name worldwide synonymous with unspeakable brutality and senseless violence. In the eyes of the world and most of their countrymen, they were already the devil incarnate and they knew it.
There was certainly nothing I could write that would further blacken their image.
Many Khmer Rouge cadre sympathized and were, to a degree, in awe of the sometimes ridiculous and always relentless lengths I had gone over the years attempting to access their inner sanctum and interview Pol Pot.
My persistence, I think, struck some familiar chord of revolutionary self-sacrifice-against-daunting-odds. Perhaps many of them could relate, having disappeared as eager, patriotic youths into the jungle more than twenty years earlier, waiting for naught the revolutionary victory.
If they weren’t impressed, at least they were entertained by this shaved-headed American who wouldn’t go away. And if they weren’t entertained, I had regardless become a kind of fixture, like some half-mad Dennis the Menace to the Khmer Rouge’s Mr. Wilson, with whom they grew resigned to affectionately tolerate.
They had, over time, tried everything to reject me—arrested me at gunpoint, shot at me, ordered me killed, banished me, robbed me, and handed me over the border in disgust to be arrested by Thai authorities.
I became rather legendary within the Khmer Rouge army, I was to learn, as this reckless, perhaps insane, rather likeable American who would appear in the oddest of circumstances. Literally nothing dissuaded me.
I was fully cognizant and reconciled to the fact that there was s strong chance I would die in these jungles. I always tried to be smart with tactics, having committed to a strategy that required accepting a high level of intrinsic danger. But I never once rejected going into a war-zone simply because it was dangerous.
I continued to show up, uninvited, over the years in virtually every corner of their jungles, often where no foreigner had ever been. I arrived by foot, captured Russian military vehicles, driven by defecting government soldiers during battle, on the back of an elephant, bicycle, dirt bikes supplied by the CIA to non-communist guerrilla allies, by river in commandeered sampans, ox-cart, rented helicopter, accompanied by United Nations troops, guided by my own hired mercenaries, escorted by Thai military intelligence liaisons, with Thai businessmen who traded with the guerrillas, logging trucks, and even by taxi cab ( I can remember more than once the driver of my hired car simply refusing to go any further into the scrub and abandoning me to walk the last few miles).
I once traversed the trench lines into Khmer Rouge territory driving a government military officer’s Russian jeep, adorned with full government regalia identifying the vehicle, which I had rented from a corrupt Cambodian general. I remember startled guerrilla troops popping up from bunkers, leaves and branches crudely camouflaging their helmets, as I weaved through frontline trenches and around minefields in abandoned rice paddies. I was advised by unamused Khmer Rouge commanders never, ever to do that again.
Almost always, I arrived under dangerous circumstances, through combat frontlines, from enemy-held territory, over mountains, crossing national borders, always through a minefield, from north, south, east and west, essentially to be turned away, mainly empty-handed, time and time again.
I didn’t mid the rejection. The chase itself was a fun-filled adventure, a young man’s fantasy.
My visits to the Khmer Rouge zones didn’t endear me to the government forces either, who regularly tried to kill me.
Spies are ubiquitous in Cambodia. The government would know I was in Khmer rouge zones within a very short time, often within hours. I listened to government field radio reports broadcasting my location to front-line troops. They would then rocket our position. This, in turn, didn’t endear me to the guerrilla troops with whom I was visiting.
In general, I was viewed as a problem.
Many had concluded my very presence was simply a pain in the ass. There was often a mood shift which seemed to elicit an inaudible groan when I would arrive.
But I was the only westerner many of the Khmer Rouge cadre and jungle fighters had ever had contact with. So there was the ever-present animal in the zoo factor. It was not unusual for large crowds of Khmer Rouge civilians and soldiers, some walking for days, to gather at a safe distance and gawk at me for hours.
Old ladies would squat and chew betel nut, spitting and exchange raucous commentary with each other. “ Are they all fat and bald?” one toothless old woman asked my bodyguard in a remote village which had never hosted a foreigner before.
I remember clearly one time squatting around a fire late at night deep in the jungle just north of the great temples of Angkor Wat, monkeys crying from the tall canopy of trees. I had walked for two weeks from Thailand with non-communist guerrillas accompanying them on a mission to attack government positions. We often encountered Khmer Rouge guerrillas who shared the jungle with their then coalition partners fighting the common enemy, the occupying Vietnamese army and their installed government in Phnom Penh.
A grizzled Khmer Rouge cadre was casually drawing battle plans in the dirt with a stick, explaining to other young fighters the next morning’s attack. He pointed to a small village, thrusting his stick in the dirt and raw hatred flashing from his eyes, hissed “Tomorrow, we will turn it into a rice field!”
Several minutes into the preview of the intended assault he looked across at me squatting on my haunches a few feet away from him, locked on my eyes in abrupt recognition, and leapt back with a cry of terror.
“Joy Marey! Barong moek Howee!” Translation: “Motherfucker! A white foreigner has arrived!” was the totality of his exact words. He literally grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle, jumped to his feet, clutched his heart and paced back and forth, taking deep breaths and cursing for a few minutes to recover.
Everyone who fit my description, after all, was the enemy, of whom he had only seen pictures of over the years. And to see a vision of the devil himself, a blue-eyed, bearded, bald one, armed and dressed in combat fatigues staring at him from across the campfire deep in the jungle, was too much for him to process.
The poor man never seemed quite to recover. He glared at me for days afterwards, his face furrowed in a queer mix of raw hate and confusion.
To try to keep track of the inner workings of the Khmer Rouge was not just a matter of analyzing information. That was the easier part—a skill developed by following the nuances of their historical methodology and rhetoric.
The hard part was getting credible, first-hand information. Elevating secrecy to an art form, the Khmer Rouge obscured and compartmentalized all levels of information so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the enemy, which by 1995 was a category that included every single nation on earth and most Cambodian citizens.
I was keenly aware, each time I went into their territory, it was a category that clearly also included me.
For the time being, however, I continued to be a potentially useful enemy whose channel, by order of Pol Pot himself, remained open. I comforted myself by dwelling on the fact, particularly when I was being glared at by armed Khmer Rouge, that every Khmer Rouge cadre knew that it would be suicidal to harm someone who Pol Pot thought might be useful.
My relationship with the Khmer Rouge had evolved in the early 1990’s to include, by default, nothing less than perhaps their primary liaison to the West.
They did not think of me as a sympathizer. Indeed, in their perpetual state of rather astounding and logic-muddled paranoia, they had concluded that I was a paid operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. “We have discussed whether you are CIA and decided it doesn’t really matter,” one Khmer Rouge diplomat told me matter of factly once.
They politely attempted to maintain the charade that they thought I was an independent journalist, but we both knew they didn’t believe it. They simply did not understand the concept of someone who did not serve the interests of—was under the control of—the government that issued ones passport.
They often used the term “you” when referring to the US government or angrily condemned me for some Washington policy. I would ritually correct them. And they would apologize half-heartedly.
The irony is US law forbids the CIA from recruiting journalists employed by American owned media, and the Far Eastern Economic Review was owned by Dow Jones—perhaps the most iconic symbol of world capitalism.
So, while extensive, my dealings with CIA operatives were often a tortuous process themselves that rivaled the Khmer Rouge, with many having to go through acrobatic lawyer-driven hoops to receive prior permission from Washington before meeting me. Some simply ignored the directive from Langley, and I count many intelligence officials—from a broad range of competing countries—among my friends.
It was helpful that the Khmer Rouge faced a couple of basic problems that worked to my advantage. Even before they retreated back to the jungle in 1992, many governments banned their officials from any direct contact with the guerrillas or their representatives. Even at diplomatic functions and cocktail parties, the Khmer Rouge was shunned.
US policy went so far as to specifically prohibit initiating contact at cocktail parties. U.S. government officials were allowed—by written directive—to return, but not offer, a verbal greetings or handshake. This tied the hands of intelligence agents or diplomats who were on one hand tasked with gathering information on the guerrilla group, and on the other forbidden from dealing with them directly. I, of course, had no such problem.
At cocktail parties, Khmer Rouge officials would often be standing alone, clearly uncomfortable in their western suits, looking grumpy as they held a cocktail they wouldn’t drink, being ignored and eyed simultaneously, not unlike a pedophile relative at a family gathering.
I not only had no problem chatting them up, I reveled in it.
I particularly liked National Day celebrations, held by virtually every countries embassy once a year. By protocol, the entire diplomatic list and other dignitaries and select nationals of the country would be invited, including the Khmer Rouge. Those functions to which I wasn’t invited, I crashed. I have attended scores over the years.
The hotel ballrooms and ambassador’s living rooms are filled with people who would normally refuse my telephone calls. It was a diplomat’s nightmare and journalists dream; stuck being chatted up by a journalist he had long tried to avoid.
Often the Khmer Rouge diplomat would be found in the corner with the North Korean or some other third world pariah. Afterwards, it wasn’t unusual to be grilled by jealous but thankful diplomats who needed something to write in their cable to the home office on their rare Khmer Rouge encounter.
The second basic problem, after the Khmer Rouge retreated back to their jungle redoubts, was often simply a matter of logistics. Dialogue from the jungle is a pain in the neck. Aside from the issues of safety and political will, physical access was extremely difficult. Normal modes of contact—such as telephone, email, meetings in obscure seedy bars or fancy hotel lobbies were, of course, not possible or practical.
In 1996, I took a sabbatical from reporting from Phnom Penh to be a visiting scholar at a Washington academic think tank. It was not unrelated to a rather incendiary series of articles I had written naming both Cambodian Prime Ministers as being bankrolled by and, in exchange, giving political protection to, a major Asian heroin trafficker and organized crime figure.
One day in 1996, while in my office at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I got a call from a friend in Europe with a message. The Khmer Rouge wanted to see me urgently. Could I come to the jungle? The message was to go to the remote sleepy Thai border town of Surin, and check into a particular hotel as soon as possible. When I arrived at the hotel, I was to call a particular phone number in Europe and give my hotel room number. I was then to wait for someone to contact me. That was the entirety of the message.
It was a typical set-up for a meeting with the Khmer Rouge. No mention of who I was to meet, where I would go, when I would be contacted, or what the subject matter would concern. I didn’t even know who within the Khmer Rouge was contacting me.
The routing of the message was typical in its circuitous layers to obscure any prying eyes or ears. And it was designed for the Khmer Rouge to remain in complete control of the process of me arriving in their territory.
It denied me any ability to double-cross them if I was so inclined, or to pass on sensitive information to any foreign intelligence officials.
It also left me very vulnerable if something were to go wrong. There was always a palpable undercurrent of dark unease for me with these people.
A Khmer Rouge “former” diplomat in Paris, who was married to a French woman and therefore held French citizenship and was allowed to remain in France, served as one of the guerrillas primary contacts in Europe.
The Khmer Rouge “former” diplomat in Paris had been contacted by another Khmer Rouge “former” diplomat living underground in Bangkok (in a safe house maintained by Thai military intelligence). That diplomat maintained human runners who would be dispatched back and forth overland across the Thai border into the jungle.
The diplomat in Paris had called my friend. My friend, a Franco-Khmer, was trusted by the Khmer Rouge but not a member of the Party. He, in turn, was known to be close to me.
The leadership in the jungle relayed information to me in Washington this way.
None of the intermediaries were told more than they needed to know beyond getting a message to me. Even if they were inclined to talk they didn’t have any information. The “former” diplomat in Paris had one fully equipped man, trained in China as a coded communication specialist, who could transmit and receive top-secret messages from a counterpart in the jungle in times of crisis.
So, as always, I told my friend to reply I would be departing immediately and to relay the message that I would check into the specific hotel as instructed in Surin, Thailand within 72 hours. I boarded a plane from Washington’s Dulles international airport that night for the 36 hour flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok it was a 10 hour drive to the border town.
From the hotel, I dialed a contact number in Europe and informed my contact simply the number of the hotel room I had checked into.
No names were used. No countries were mentioned. Certainly no words intimating any outlawed guerrilla groups culpable for committing crimes against humanity were uttered. Even the name of the hotel was omitted.
“How are you, my friend?” I said. “I have arrived fine. I am in number 302. I will wait here.’
“I will let my friends know now. They will contact you. Be careful.”
He couldn’t tell me who, where or what to expect or when I could expect to know when I would be contacted to not to be informed, then, either, of any of these details.
Then I waited….for days. I forget how many, but several.
Mainly I stayed drunk. I did sit-ups and ran in place. I left the room for one hour each afternoon to swim at a lap pool in the town. I ate rice and noodles from the lobby nightclub, which doubled as a karaoke bar, coffee shop, and whorehouse.
I prepared for an interview with Pol Pot. I cleaned my camera equipment and read literature and documents on the Khmer Rouge I always kept for distraction. I had read everything at least once before.
I had no idea whether I was to walk through the jungle for days, whether I would meet important leaders, including Pol Pot, or when my contacts would arrive to retrieve me.
All that uncertainty requires contingency preparation: jungle clothes, still cameras, video camera, batteries, film, notebooks, hammock, mosquito net, food, rolls of chewing tobacco, whiskey and Ziploc bags of all sizes to protect against the daily monsoon rains. Everything had to fit perfectly inside a small Khmer Rouge knapsack on my back in case I had to walk for days.
And I couldn’t really leave the hotel room not knowing when the Khmer Rouge operatives would arrive and not wanting to draw attention to myself in a town where there are very few western visitors who aren’t up to no good.
The small hotel staff knew me well after years of coming though, and it was no secret what, in general, I was up to. They knew I was going to nearby Cambodia, where there was a war, but they really didn’t want to know any more than that.
I would always leave the lobby, usually before dawn, not checking out, dressed in jungle clothing with a backpack and laden with camera equipment.
Often, I wouldn’t return for days, muddy and dirty and accompanied by fit men in crew cuts and sunglasses. These were my Thai military intelligence escorts who ferried me across the border through a myriad of Thai checkpoints who didn’t speak much and dressed in civilian clothes. They had a particular ID card that seemed to grip any other Thai official’s attention with an immediate positive response and silent accommodation. This had always precluded the hotel staff previously of inquiring who I was or what I was doing.
This time there were no Thai officials to greet me and smooth my egress across national borders.
Then one rainy morning at 0600 there was a firm knock on the door. I asked who it was: First in Thai, then in English, then in Cambodian. After a long pause, a hushed voice replied in Khmer: “It’s me.”
TO BE CONTINUED……….
Copyright Nate Thayer. Excerpts from “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalists Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge” All Rights Reserved. No publication or citation permitted without author’s express written permission.)