The Night Pol Pot Died: From the Jungles of Northern Cambodia
By Nate Thayer
EXCERPTS FROM SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: A JOURNALIST’S MEMOIR FROM INSIDE POL POT’S KHMER ROUGE
(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No publication or transmission in whole or part allowed without express written permission of the author. Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.”)
By Nate Thayer
I was alone in a hotel the night Pol Pot died, in the small, remote Thai border town of Surin, abutting the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles of Cambodia.
I had been urgently summoned by the Khmer Rouge a few days earlier in a phone call which betrayed no specifics of why they wanted to see me, only that it was urgent. General Khem Nuon, the Khmer Rouge army-chief-of-staff and top field commander for Ta Mok had said only: “What you have been asking for we have agreed to.”
I took that to mean that I had been granted another interview with Pol Pot, but I was to learn it was even more significant. They had decided, as I had been pressing them for months, to turn Pol Pot over to the international community to face a trial.
I was summoned to discuss how to actually handle the logistics of handing over Pol Pot. It was an attempt to play their last card to garner international support and stem metastasizing mutinies and all out warfare raging in their jungles which threatened to finish their organization for the final time.
I had spent several days along the Thai-Cambodian rebel held border discussing their plight and interviewing their top cadre. Earlier that day I had filed a story with my magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review, on the Khmer Rouge decision to hand over Pol Pot. The Review went to press at 6:00 pm Hong Kong time on Wednesdays—this one being that day–the 15th of April, 1998.
“We have decided to turn Pol Pot over to the Americans. But we can’t get in touch with the Americans. We discussed it again this morning and Ta Mok agreed. So we want to give him to you,” said the guerrilla commander.
I was, to put it mildly, momentarily flummoxed.
What the fuck was I supposed to do with Pol Pot? Put him in the back of the pickup truck and take him to the Far Eastern Economic Review office in Bangkok? It was not part of my job description. I suggested they should promptly get in touch with the International Committee of the Red Cross and gave him the appropriate contact details. “That is a very good idea!” Khem Nuon responded.
There were other details, but I knew that the decision to turn over one of the century’s most egregious perpetrators of crimes against humanity to face justice was a very good story indeed.
The magazine released the highlights of the story in a press release that night, April 15, 1998, at 5:00 pm Bangkok time—6:00 pm Hong Kong time. It was picked up immediately by the international wire services, shooting high up in the top world stories, and broadcast by the Voice Of America at 8:00 pm Cambodian time on their Khmer language service, which Pol Pot had told me he listened to, religiously, every evening.
17 minutes after Pol Pot died—at 10:32 pm on 15 April 1998—my mobile phone rang in my hotel room.
Reaching past the half-empty bottle of fake Johnny Walker Black whiskey on the bedside table, I grabbed the remote, muted the volume of CNN blaring on the television, and answered the phone.
“My friend, Pol Pot is dead!” said Gen. Khem Nuon, my good friend and the top khmer Rouge military field commander, in an urgent whisper. “He died a few minutes ago.” He was calling on a Chinese military radio phone from the jungles a few kilometers away across the Thai border.
While the Khmer Rouge always whispered, they were rarely breathless. Nuon was desperate and looking for guidance. “What should I do?” he pleaded. “You must tell the Americans and you must come here immediately!”
It was an example of the murky terrain I had assumed in my only true role as a journalist, but in the final days had morphed into the chief liaison with the rebels and the outside world in their final months.
As I listened to the Khmer Rouge army commander, Monica Lewinsky splashed across the muted screen of CNN International Headline News, the world news, that night, dominated with the criminal punishment and attempts at removal from power of US president Bill Clinton, the most powerful man on earth, for his indiscreet blow job with a young intern. That story would continue to tower over the story of the demise of Pol Pot, a man who had been one of the century’s most notorious despots.
General Nuon called, mainly, because he knew I would want to know. He was both a killer and my friend. Nuon always tried his best to be helpful. I had spent countless days and nights over the last months with Nuon explaining how the world worked outside the jungles he had called home for thirty years. His appetite for and curiosity for ideas and the new-fangled world was insatiable.
It equaled my thirst for knowledge of his movement, its inner workings and history. He had commanded the troops that overthrew Pol Pot the year before, in June 1997, and therefore Gen. Khem Nuon had risen as the top field commander of all Khmer Rouge troops. With his formidable language skills and new role as chief field commander of rebel troops, he was for the first time able to clandestinely leave the jungles he had called home for decades and travel for covert meetings in Thailand, where he was escorted by a special unit of Thai military intelligence operatives who closely monitored the routines, movements, and intentions of the outlawed guerrilla faction.
Nuon was also receiving medical treatment in Bangkok at a Thai military facility for a cancerous thyroid. He would always come to my house and, over copious amounts of hot tea with lots of sugar, spend hours talking about life. He reveled just to be free from the harsh deprivations of the jungle.
Gen. Khem Nuon had come to rely on me, and me on him, since July 1997 as we spent countless days and nights sharing thoughts and information. “We will be friends forever!” he would often say to me with a broad, gentle grin, squeezing my hand and hugging me. He was bright, gentle, hard working, kind, and a natural leader of men. He was also the top armed commander of one of the world’s most brutal political movements.
General Nuon personified the contradictions within the Khmer Rouge movement that allowed them to be such a formidable political force twenty years after having committed the most despicable state ordered crimes against humanity leaving 1.8 million people–20% of their population—dead in 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days in power. Despite their atrocious human rights record, it was decent, good men like General Nuon who allowed the Khmer Rouge to garner considerable popular support in the years after ruining the lives of millions.
He represented to me the contradictions in my own mind that I had developed for the Khmer Rouge—on one hand respectable and impressive and on the other hand unspeakably brutal and offensive. I was very fond of Nuon and him of me, despite the fact, in truth, I had grown to collectively detest everything that Cambodia had become.
There was symbiosis in my relationship with the Khmer Rouge: They needed me and I needed them and neither of us trusted each other.
While competent jungle fighters, these were peasants, mostly rice farmers turned guerrillas, but their ranks were also filled with the best and the brightest of Cambodia who had fled to the jungles as youth 30 years before to join the revolution. Nuon, and most others in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy in the Cambodian jungles, had no exposure to how the world worked outside their jungle, where most had lived there entire adult lives. In the years preceding, they had come to largely rely on me to both interpret how the outside world worked and thought for them and, simultaneously, take their message to them.
After Nuon called me with the news of Pol Pot’s death at 10:32 PM April 15, 1998, I knew I would not have to tell the Americans that the mass murderer Pol Pot was dead. Moments after I hung up, an American intelligence officer charged with following Khmer Rouge developments called me on my cell phone from Bangkok. He wanted to know if I had heard “rumours” that Pol Pot was dead. Nuon’s phone was tapped, as I knew mine was, and the American spy wasn’t fooling, or trying to, either of us. It was a game whose rules I had long before learned and understood.
But he also knew that a monitored phone conversation between a guerrilla commander and a journalist was insufficient to confirm such an historic event. They, as I, needed proof. To be sure this wasn’t some kind of political trick, someone independent and credible needed to go back to the jungle and provide details and evidence of what had happened.
The American asked me if I could bring Pol Pot’s body back from the jungle to Thailand, if possible, he said, or, at the least, some forensic material. “If you can’t do that, maybe you could cut off one of his fingers,” he suggested seriously, in an only fleetingly embarrassed tone. This was not abnormal. I thought it quite a reasonable suggestion. I told him I would do what I could. He needed to get Washington hard evidence of what had happened in these jungles inaccessible to them, and his crude suggestion didn’t faze me at the time at all. The American was a top notch military intelligence officer, very bright, spoke fluent Thai, and had excellent relations with the Thai military. I had the greatest respect for him and his job.
The Americans had political restraints and could not simply show up at Khmer Rouge field headquarters, but I didn’t. I requested he make a phone call to the Thai military to encourage them to let me cross their borders at dawn with direct permission from the highest command, into the Khmer Rouge zones. The American promised to put in an urgent good word to facilitate my crossing through the heavily guarded Thai military checkpoints, through which all unauthorized persons were forbidden to pass. The road to Anlong Veng was a well hidden dirt path set off a remote road that hugged the unpopulated, jungle-clad Thai Cambodian border marked by a steep mountain escarpment. These rutted narrow paths were bordered by a towering jungle canopy and weaved through eerily silent thick tropical forests void of any human presence. It was a no-man’s land for miles after the last Thai checkpoint and before populated areas of the Khmer Rouge controlled jungle bases in Cambodia. The areas between frontlines are always the most dangerous, fraught with vulnerability from roving bandits, landmines, and ambush from a wide potential cast of characters.
While the Khmer Rouge wanted me to come, and Gen. Nuon controlled the troops at his jungle checkpoints, crossing out of Thailand into Khmer Rouge territory required another set of permissions.
A few moments after I hung up with the American spook, the assistant of the Thai army commander-in-chief called. It was close to midnight now. He told me, without me even making the request, I was granted permission personally from the Thai army commander-in-chief, who I had known personally for years. He had been a mid level Thai army Special Forces commander. The Thai’s, also, wanted me to venture into the midst of a then heavily embattled war zone on the mountains across the borders from Thailand to find Pol Pot’s body. The Thai army commander in chief general was highly respected for his professionalism and honesty and previously was in charge of Thailand’s important and complicated efforts during the Cambodian covert war from 1979 throught 1992. He then headed army intelligence before rising to overall army commander, one of Thailand’s most powerful positions. He later became Prime Minister of Thailand after a military coup overthrew the elceted civilian government.
His aide gave me the name and mobile phone number of the commander of a highly secret Thai military unit who I knew only by reputation. Regiment 16 was based in a remote location along the border and charged with the extremely sensitive task of controlling all access to and liaison with the Khmer Rouge, escorting them on their forbidden trips to Thailand and entering the Khmer Rouge zones with relative free will. Regiment 16 officially didn’t exist and performed functions Thailand officially denied it didn’t engage in. He said the Colonel was already instructed to meet me at a specific gas station at dawn
Neither the Thais or the Americans wanted to be seen as involved in what surely would be an extremely high profile event that would soon, I knew, dominate world headlines and attract scores of journalists to the border area. The Thais had long denied they had direct dealings with the Khmer Rouge, loathed the periodic public fallout from revelations to the contrary, and were under intense international scrutiny and United Nations official directive to not assist them.
My trip across the border from Surin in Thailand to Khmer Rouge zones was not a new scenario. I had made these forays many times before. And both the Thai and American intelligence officers trusted me. I could have burned them all many times over the years, and I never did.
I never revealed how I accessed the guerrilla zones or who assisted me. I knew which secrets to keep and which ones to spill and they appreciated that. One thing I rarely reported was what means and methods of getting to the story I sought or used which might jeopardize a source. The process was usually full of intrigue and would make a good read, but all officials involved operated covertly and therefore were deeply suspicious of journalists. I never betrayed a promise or source from any faction, agency or government.
By the time of Pol Pot’s death in 1998, no governments, even China, who previously appeared unconcerned with international opinion, could be seen as having friendly—or any—relations with the Khmer Rouge.
But everyone knew I still maintained good contacts with the guerrillas, and as a journalist this was wholly legitimate. Beholden to no one, I could hold the mantle of an independent, neutral journalist around my neck, which I defended proudly and without compromise. I had no political problems with associating with international pariahs and murderers. It started as my job. And I rather enjoyed it. Rogue people and states fascinated me. And then it became my obsession.
But the night of Pol Pot’s death, in many ways, marked when that long episode my life’s long efforts was finally over.
It was midnight now. Pol Pot was dead. I felt numb mainly, but also relieved. Fifteen years of my life efforts had now come to an end.
I drank straight whiskey from a glass. I re-organized my gear to cross the border in a few hours at dawn.
I watched Monica Lewinsky play over and over on CNN in the background, flashbulbs sparking, as she fled into a courthouse, to face the full puissance of the American justice system.
It did not elude me that it was a twisted reality that the Lewinsky affairs’ sordid details of superfluous justice was far more newsworthy than that which had been deemed appropriate for pursuit of Pol Pot, who stood accused of crimes against humanity.
It was a fact that when he died, 20 years after his regime, which left 1.7 million people dead–1/4 of the population—in 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days in power, Pol Pot had never been charged by any court with any crime anywhere in the world.
When he died he was not formally, in the eyes of international law, a wanted man. In fact, it would have been a violation of his rights, sufficient to have any charges dismissed under international law, if he was captured and held against his will anywhere outside of Cambodia.
I knew that soon Pol Pot’s death would dominate–perhaps not eclipsing–but nearly of equal prurient interest along with Monica Lewinsky, in the world press. I knew, as a journalist to my core, that this story would leak to be a world story within hours. Once leaked, scores of journalists would descend on this Thai border town, an 8 hour drive from Bangkok. I wanted to get in and out of the jungle before the circus began…..
To be continued….
(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No publication or transmission in whole or part allowed without express written permission of the author. Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.”)